Seen a cow lately? Or a pig? How about sheep or chickens? If you live
near a major city, it's probably been awhile since you've encountered
livestock. But even if you live in the country, miles from the nearest
freeway or shopping mall, you're probably seeing less livestock these
Farm animals are in decline worldwide. Out of approximately 4,000
breeds of domesticated animals, 1,000 breeds are seriously threatened
with extinction. Every week another breed of workhorse, cattle, pig or
variety of sheep or poultry follows the passenger pigeon, the blue pike
and the wooly mammoth into oblivion.
The Holstein, for instance, stood out
from hundreds of other breeds of cow for its milk production and today
almost all our dairy products come from this one breed. Jerseys,
Guernseys, and dozens of other breeds that were once productive milkers
are now considered rare and unusual, raised primarily by hobbyists and
collectors. The same is true of pigs, poultry, sheep and goats. The
drive toward intensification and specialization worldwide has resulted
in an increased reliance on a small number of breeds to meet the demand
for food. Many breeds that once were considered valuable have been
committed to the genetic wastebasket.
hard numbers, there's no shortage of livestock. More domesticated
animals are being farmed in less space and with greater returns of
meat, milk, eggs and wool than at any time in history. But the number
of breeds of domesticated animals is much smaller than it was a century
ago. The genetic diversity of farm animals is shrinking, and with it
the ability to adapt to new climates, new diseases and new markets.
Go back 15,000 years or so and there were only a handful of
domesticated animals and most were found in the river valleys of what
is now southern Iraq. Today's pigs are all descendants of a few wild
boar, cattle trace their lineage to wild Aurochs, and sheep come from
the Asiatic moufflon and a couple other wild ancestors.
From a small number of wild ancestors
thousands of different breeds of farm animals were created by farmers
on every continent selecting and breeding for traits like hardiness,
efficiency, disease resistance and fertility.
It took 10,000 years to develop a great diversity of farm animals
suited to various climates and conditions and markets around the world.
It has taken less than a century to reduce that diversity by more than
The highly specialized nature of modern agriculture discourages breed
diversity. In an intensively management system it is more efficient to
deal with a single productive breed than to mess around with animals of
varying degrees of disease resistance or fertility.
Like family farms and rural communities, endangered livestock breeds
have no laws to protect them and little political muscle. Their
survival depends mainly on appeals to common sense and long-term
vision. We can get by without the Belted Galloway, the Cotswold, the
Gascon or the Marsh Daisy, but at what cost?
A number of organizations are documenting rare breeds and trying to
maintain them, including Rare Breeds International (Ave. Q, National
Agricultural Center, Stoneleigh, Kenilworth, Warks, England CV8 2LG),
Australian Rare Breeds Reserve (Snig Hall, Gidgegannup, W. Australia
6555), Joywind Farm Rare Breeds Conservancy (Marmora, Ontario, Canada
K0K 2MO), American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (Box 477, Pittsboro, NC