by GRAIN | 28 Mar 1994


The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, has released a new and important alarm. Not only is the vital diversity of our crops and forests succumbing to erosion under the guise of “development” programmes, but one-third of the 4,000 or so breeds of animals used worldwide for food and farming are dangerously flirting with extinction. The issues surrounding animal genetic resources parallel in many ways the problems that have been plaguing plant genetic resources. However, we know a lot less about it. Animals — domesticated and wild — are extremely important components of people's livelihoods systems. In this article we give a background overview of the status of animal genetic diversity and resource use, and what is being done to safeguard and improve the benefits people can derive through the riches of the animal world.


Without a doubt, global concern over biological diversity is skewed by the (Northern) public's fascination with grizzly bears, tropical rainforests and other majestic “wonders of the world”. The diversity crucial for agriculture and the daily struggle of farming communities gets little attention at all. Still, where agriculture does get attention, most of it is directed to food crops, and mainly to the “starchy staples”: cereals, roots and tubers. Animals, especially those which help sustain local people and their integrated farming systems, are grossly missing from the scene. Compared to crops, little is known about the status of animal genetic diversity important to people's livelihoods, but we do know that it is disappearing fast. Despite the dearth of data, an important challenge lies before us to upgrade the conservation and use of animal genetic diversity in order to secure benefits to local people and develop more sustainable production systems.

A global portrait

It may be hard to imagine for those living in the big cities of the industrialised world, but pigs, cattle and poultry formed a world population of some 13 billion heads (and bodies) in 1990, most of them being chickens. This is more than twice the human population of the planet! FAO calculates that animals account for 19% of the world's food basket directly, but they also provide draught power and fertiliser for crop production, especially in developing countries, bringing their overall contribution to global agriculture up to 25%. While evolution has produced more than 40,000 species of vertebrates, less than 20 make a significant contribution to the world food supply. Of those 20, just a small number of them dominate global production. The accompanying graphs show that the bulk of global meat production comes from pigs, cattle and poultry, while the world's milk supply is almost entirely provided by cows. Of course, all these data omit “minor” species such as camel, rabbit and deer, as well as fish and game, which are vital at the local level. They also mask regional differences. In India, buffaloes contribute more milk than cattle do. And in China, a full 80% of the meat production is pork.

While some 70% of all cattle and 60% of all pigs and poultry live in developing countries, only 30% of all milk and 40% of all meat is produced there. This bias has a lot to do with the way the Europeans and North Americans organise their livestock production: in many cases it is highly intensive, concentrated, disconnected from crop production, and based on a very limited number of super-breeds. It also reflects a tremendous North/South bias in the place and role of those animals in agriculture. While in India and sub-Saharan Africa only 2% of all grain consumed is consumed by animals, in a country like the USA this figure is as high as 70%. Every hectare of agricultural land in the Netherlands is backed up by 8 hectares of land somewhere in the Third World — be it planted to cassava in Thailand or to soybean in Brazil — to grow the feed for its intensive livestock industries.

Value of animals to local livelihoods

Still, for the majority of the farm animals and the majority of the farmers in the world, the picture is quite different. Rather than seeing farm animals as simple milk and meat machines, they also provide other important services such as traction, fertiliser, soil management, pest control, fuel, clothing, etc. On many farms, animals make a major contribution to crop production and energy supplies in the form of manure. Dung and urine enhance the fertility of soil and contribute to plant nutrition; dung is also burned as fuel. For many poor farmers in the South, manure is the only form of applied fertiliser that is available and affordable. In many farming systems, there is a strong interdependency of cropping and livestock-keeping. A drop in animal numbers (for example after drought), means less manure and lower crop yields.

In many countries, animals make cropping easier. As one report points out, “Not only can animals plough the fields, they can also transport water and fuel to the home, goods to and from markets, fertiliser to the fields, and crops to the granary.” While some animals such as rats and goats can be veritable pests themselves, destroying crops with voracious appetites, chickens and ducks can be excellent assistants in pest control strategies. Deployed in the field, they feed on weeds, insects, snails, larvae and other threats to crop production.

Farming aside, domestic livestock are a vital form of capital, especially for the poor. Many people raise animals as an eventual source of cash for when times go bad or a heavy investment has to be made. They are used for loans, collateral and dowries, and can always be quickly converted into currency — without interest payments! Women often take charge of fattening pigs or raising small animals to barter or trade for household needs. As well, for many communities, animals also play an important role in sacred or religious traditions.

People depend on wild animals for many of the same purposes. Rural folk manage the undomesticated environment to secure a wide range of needs, especially in times of stress such as drought or harvest loss. Wild animals which can be hunted or trapped provide food, skins, bone and a source of income when the products of the wild can be sold on the market or as a source of recreation for tourists. Most of the aquatic foods people rely on in the South — fish, shrimp, crabs, frogs and snails — are wild or semi-wild, whether they are farmed or caught.

Origin and diversity

The domestication of animals started some 11,000 year ago, shortly after the domestication of plants, when settled farming became a new option for food supply. According to archaeologists, goats and sheep were the first animals to be tamed, followed by pigs and cattle, in today's Near East. As in the case of plants, the vast majority of domesticated animals have their origin in developing countries. Apart from the Near East animals mentioned above, chickens come from Southeast Asia, turkeys from Latin America, and buffaloes from India. Not to forget a whole series of “minor” species which are very important to local communities such as guinea pigs, yaks, musk oxen, as well as miscellaneous fowl and small ruminants.

Despite our overall dependency on a limited number of animal species for global production, farmers managed to develop a vast amount of diversity among them. Just as we speak of different varieties of crops, we can also distinguish different breeds of animals. If chickens have a discrete centre of origin in Southeast Asia, there are countless, locally-adapted breeds spread all over the world today. Over time, domesticated animals spread mainly with people and settled into new environmental niches. The natural pressures that have borne down on livestock include extreme temperatures, feed supply, humidity, parasites, disease and other factors. Together with mating strategies employed by rural folk to combine desirable characteristics in offspring, selection and breeding have resulted in a range of indigenous types. For example, the Criollo cattle in South America were developed from initial introductions coming from Spain and Portugal in the 1500s. Over the past five hundred years, they have developed traits that allow them to live on poor nutritional supplies and withstand environmental extremes. Several traditional African cattle breeds, among them the small N 'Dama, have developed resistance against trypanosomiasis — a debilitating and often fatal disease affecting 30% of Africa's cattle. Chinese farmers bred the rare “Taihu” pig, which can use a very high portion of forage foods in its diet, reaches sexual maturity in 64 days and produces an average litter of 16 piglets! In general, Asians can boast to have developed more than 140 different breeds of pigs, while North Americans can claim only 19.

But then, the concept of a “breed” is really limited to the setting of the industrialised countries. Only in the past 150-200 years, farmers and herders in the North began intensive, controlled breeding practices to develop uniform animal types, duly registered in herdbooks. Because their pedigree is so strictly controlled, they can be identified as distinct breeds. In most developing countries, however, this kind of pedigree breeding for uniformity was never employed. Thus, a genetically diverse population of many millions of cattle in northern India goes by the encompassing name Haryana, while the difference between a Holstein cow and Red Holstein cow in northern Europe draws down to one single recessive gene. When experts talk about the important diversity of European livestock, they refer to the amount of visually different breeds developed, and not necessarily to the amount of genetic diversity they embody.

Seeds of destruction

While intensive livestock breeding in the North over the past centuries helped to develop numerous different breeds, it also sowed the seeds of diversity's destruction — worldwide. The sharp differentiation between breeds prompted a tendency to favour certain “superior” types over others. As with crops, economic pressures brought farmers to concentrate on the most productive breeds: higher yields and adaptation to new production systems. Since a few decades, the industrialisation of farming practices and new technologies for breeding are resulting in an incredible impoverishment of animal genetic diversity. FAO calculates, for example, that half of the breeds that existed at the beginning of the century in Europe have become extinct. One-third of the remaining 770 breeds are in danger of disappearing over the next 20 years. Other sources indicate that one single breed — the Friesian — now constitutes 60% of the dairy cattle community in the European Union, having gradually replaced other breeds over the past decades.

Agricultural policies in the North promote intensified livestock production systems, where animals are often reared inside special buildings and are forced to produce higher yields through a combination of genetics and management practices. Leaving aside the question of how these animals feel in such production systems, the genetic push has been nothing short of impressive. Compared with 30 years ago, the average dairy cow in the United States produces over twice as much milk. Fat thickness in Danish pigs has been cut in half. Today's broiler chickens mature in six weeks instead of three months. And industrial turkeys have been bred for such a wide breast that they cannot mate naturally any more. Not mating at all has a lot to do with this dangerous trend. The development of artificial insemination techniques and the use of frozen embryos means that one bull can “donate” sperm to hundreds of cows without ever seeing them. Other techniques (such as “super ovulation”) are making it possible to produce up to a hundred offspring from a single female, and within a few years in vitro fertilisation will likely increase the number of possible — and virtually identical — offspring to thousands of cows.

Together, intensification of animal production and the new reproductive technologies are posing a major threat to indigenous livestock breeds worldwide. The lure of high productivity from super-stocks has developing countries importing exotic temperate breeds at an increasing rate. Imported strains are either shelled up in local versions of the “factory farm” (often under contract to processors and traders from the North) or they are crossed with indigenous breeds. With pushing from the World Bank, whole zones of Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa, are producing hamburger meat and broiler chickens for Northern fast-food consumers under the most intensive conditions. As well, frozen sperm and embryos are being flown from Europe and the US to all corners of the South in the name of improving stocks. For industry in the North, this is simple business. Dr. Walton of the company University Genetics sees it this way: “You can ship cows to China, which is an expensive process, or you can ship embryos. You can get 10,000 of them under your seat on the plane.” His company already signed a $9 million contract with the Indonesian government to buy Holstein cow embryos, and a similar contract was signed with China.

Unless controlled, regulated and assessed on their real value, the new biotechnologies that allow for massive shippings of embryos under airplane seats spell disaster for indigenous breeds everywhere, but also for farmers depending on them. The replacement of indigenous breeds by airplane embryos means the loss of important genetic adaptations to unique local conditions. The Ethiopian-based International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) already warned against the importing the Northern super-breeds or crossing them with the local ones in Africa: “Evaluations have shown that the productivity of indigenous breeds (...) is equal to or greater than that of many exotic genotypes under local conditions.”

The conservation challenge

The loss of traditional breeds is an increasingly recognised threat to agriculture and people's security. Given the rapid pace of environmental degradation and the need to develop more sustainable and integrated forms of agriculture, the role of traditional herds will be crucial for the future. At this moment, however, there are very few well-supported programmes in action to inventory, assess, conserve and develop animal genetic diversity important for local people's livelihoods. In contrast to crop genetic resources, national programmes in the animal sector are few and far between. In 1992, the FAO launched a programme for the global conservation of animal genetic resources. It includes efforts to produce an inventory of those resources, to identify breeds at risk of extinction, and to promote conservation and breeding programmes in the Third World. ILCA is also embarking on a research project, starting with an inventory of Africa's indigenous breeds. In addition, NGOs such as the American Minor Breeds Conservancy in the US, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK and Pro Specie Rara in Switzerland are running impressive programmes for livestock in the industrialised world.

The split in animal conservation programmes parallels to some extent the split in plant programmes, technically and geopolitically. As with plants, animal genetic diversity can be protected in the form of live populations (in situ) or stored genetic material (ex situ). NGOs tend to champion the first approach, while it seems that governments mainly focus on sperm banks and frozen embryos. Despite the fact that all our livestock were domesticated by rural folk in the South, FAO estimates that a full 85% of all fetal populations of livestock breeds being stored under ex situ conditions today are housed in or controlled by the industrialised North.

But then there is, and should be, more to it than just saving breeds or genes. If we can learn something from the plant genetic resources debate over the past decade, it is that conservation will only have a future if it is linked to sustainable utilisation. Trying to store away animal genes in deep-freezers hardly solves the immediate problem of many poor farmers ' needs for improved sustainable and adapted crop-livestock production systems based on genetic diversity. The need for decentralised and integrated farmer-based conservation and breeding programmes is glaring.

What new initiatives?

The lack of information on animal genetic diversity — predominantly in the South — and the relative weakness of conservation programmes aimed at saving and improving local breeds for so-called “resource poor” farmers leaves us questioning how today's euphoria over biodiversity can be steered to improve the situation. New initiatives such as the Biodiversity Convention, the Global Environment Facility, FAO's growing interest to play a stronger role in animal genetic resources and the expansion of the CGIAR (international agricultural research) system all open space for new and enhanced action. However, it is not clear that any of these programmes will support people's participation in the conservation and breeding effort nor promote policies that ensure clear benefits to small farmers in the South.

While the Biodiversity Convention is a prime mechanism to get animal genetic conservation programmes going — addressing all forms: livestock, wildlife and aquatics — very little thinking or discussion has been raised in this forum on farm animals. FAO and the CGIAR, which are both directly involved in agriculture, are likely to compete for further competence and control in the animal arena. FAO's track record so far is not brilliant, but it does shine in the dark of the vacuum around it. As to the CGIAR, any stronger move into the animal sector will likely be based more on its internal discussions about how to make an impact in agriculture than on a well thought out programme to save animals and farmers at the same time. At present, the two African-based animal centres ILCA and ILRAD (International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases) are being merged into an International Livestock Research Institute, to start work in 1995. The value of its “research” programme to conservation and breeding remains to be seen. At the same time, the CG's International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, formerly IBPGR) will probably take on animal genetic resources as well. Again, the strategy this institute will promote for animals is yet to be seen. Of the animal-oriented CG centres active to date, only ICLARM (International Centre for Living Aquatic Resource Management) is thinking in wider terms of people's participation and control over resources and the combination of ex and in situ conservation strategies.

NGOs and governments alike should increase their information base on conservation and use of animal genetic resources, to develop better strategies based on long-term benefits to local communities. Advances in biotechnology and the spread of intellectual property rights on animals will exacerbate the threats to diversity on the farm, in the pond and in the forest. International policy fora should give more space to the specifics of the animal sector and provide support to local initiatives for conservation and use of indigenous breeds. We needed a decade of “seed wars” in FAO to get to some consensus on what to do with the world's plant genetic resources. We should definitely avoid a repetition of this in the form of “sperm wars”, or whatever, and get right down to the business of what should be done: securing a global system for saving and using animal genetic diversity based on equity and the needs of small farmers.


Cunningham, E.P., “The Significance of Biological Diversity in Livestock Production”, in Biodiversity: A Challenge to Science, the Economy and Society, European Commission, 1987.

Winrock International, Assessment of Animal Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, Winrock, Morrilton, Arkansas, 1992, 119 pp.

National Research Council, Managing Global Genetic Resources: Livestock, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1993, 276 pp.

Pullin, Roger (ICLARM), “Aquaculture and Biodiversity”, paper presented at the Centenary Symposium of the Port Erin Marine Biological Station ( University of Liverpool), Isle of Man, 17-18 September 1992.

Biotechnology and Development Monitor , Nº 11 (special issue on livestock), June 1992.

FAO, Worldwatch List on Animal Genetic Diversity, 1st edition, FAO, Rome, November 1993.

FAO, Harvesting Nature's Diversity, World Food Day brochure, FAO, Rome 1993.

Author: GRAIN