Countries act to safeguard livestock genetic diversity

by Bryan Salvage
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ROME – Steps are being taken by an increasing number of countries to catalogue, conserve and better manage the genetic diversity of livestock in order to help safeguard the resilience of the world's food production systems, says an informal Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released Nov. 24. However, FAO cautioned that much more needs to be done to better manage animal genetic resources.

Signs of progress are noticeable three years after 191 countries adopted the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources following an FAO warning that one livestock breed had been lost per month during the 2000-2007 period and that 20% of all livestock breeds were at risk of extinction. Since then, countries have begun to take action in line with the Global Plan.

Ten countries said they have established and are implementing national strategies for managing animal genetic resources. Twenty eight more have either finalized strategies and are moving towards implementation or are currently developing their plans.

FAO's survey also shows that a range of activities are being undertaken on the ground:

• Belgium is taking a major survey of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, an effort that will result in genetic samples selected for storage in cryobanks. Bolivia is involved in a similar effort for camelids, guinea pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.
• China has granted 138 indigenous breeds protected status and has established 119 conservation farms and gene banks at the state level.

FAO cautions that progress has not been consistent in all world regions and that much more needs to be done. Its latest report on the status and trends of animal genetic resources reports 21% of livestock breeds continue to be at risk of extinction.

Approximately 1,710 breeds of livestock ranging from chickens to ostrich and from donkeys to cattle are in danger of extinction, compared to 1,649 in 2008 and 1,491 in 2006.

Information on population size and composition of an estimated 35% of known mammalian and avian breeds are not known, a gap which poses "a serious constraint to effective prioritization and planning of breed conservation measures," the report also warns.

"Like a well-balanced stock portfolio, genetic diversity makes food production more resilient in the face of threats like famine, drought, disease and the emerging challenge posed by climate change," said Irene Hoffmann, head of FAO's Animal Genetic Resources Program.

The existing animal gene pool contains valuable, irreplaceable resources that will be vital for food security and agricultural development in the coming decades, she added.

"Climate change and the emergence of new and virulent livestock diseases highlight the importance of retaining the capacity to adapt our agricultural production systems,” she continued. “Cataloging and conserving this diversity will allow us to maintain and deploy the widest possible portfolio of genetic resources in order to increase the resilience of our food supply and develop improved breeds to help sustain food production."
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