Genebanks needed to save farm animal diversity of the South—and assure the world’s future food supply

Carlos Sere amongst farm animals

Opinion piece in by Carlos Seré, Director General ILRI

Today, scientists are reconstructing the genomes of ancient mastodons, found in the frozen north. Dreams of resurrecting lost species rumble in the collective imagination. At the same time, thousands of still-existing farm animal breeds—nurtured into being by generations of farmers attuned to their environments—are slipping into the abyss of extinction, below the wire of awareness.

Livestock genetic diversity is highly threatened worldwide, but especially in the South, where the vast majority of remaining diversity resides. This diversity—of cattle, goats and sheep, swine and poultry—is as essential to the future world food supply as is the crop diversity now being stored in thousands of collections around the world and in a fail-safe crop genebank buried in the Arctic permafrost. But no comparable effort exists to conserve the animals or the genes of thousands of breeds of livestock, many of which are rapidly dying out.

Hardy and graceful Ankole cattle, raised across much of East and Central Africa, are being replaced by black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and could disappear within the next 50 years. In Viet Nam, the percentage of indigenous sows declined from 72 per cent of the total population in 1994 to only 26 per cent just eight years later. In some countries, national chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.

Some 20 per cent of the world’s 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock are at risk, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And change is accelerating. Holstein-Friesian dairy cows are now raised in 128 countries in all regions of the world, and an astonishing 90 per cent of all cattle in the North are of just six tightly defined breeds.

Most endangered livestock breeds are in developing countries, where they are herded by pastoralists or tended by farmers who grow both crops and livestock on small plots of land. With survival a day-to-day issue for many of these small-scale farmers, they are unlikely to make conservation of their rare breeds a priority, at least not without significant assistance. From Africa to Asia, farmers of the South, like the farmers of Europe, Oceania and the Americas before them, are increasingly choosing the breeds that will produce more milk, meat and eggs to feed their hungry families and raise their incomes.

They should be supported in doing so. At the same time, the breeds that are being left behind not only have intrinsic value, but also may possess genetic attributes critical to addressing future food security challenges, in developed or developing countries, as the climate, pests and diseases all change. Policy support for their conservation is needed now. This support could be in the form of incentives that encourage farmers to keep traditional animals. For example, policies could support breeding programs that increase the productivity of local breeds, or they could facilitate farmers’ access to niche markets for traditional livestock products. And policymakers should take the value of indigenous breeds into account when designing restocking programs following droughts, disease epidemics, civil conflicts or other disasters that deplete animal herds.

But even such assistance will not enable developing-world farmers to stem all the losses of developing-world farm animals. A parallel, even bigger, effort, linking local, national and international resources, must be launched to conserve livestock genetic diversity by putting some of it ‘in the bank’. The cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock should be conserved—frozen—and kept alive. The technology is available and has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction. It should also be used to conserve the legacy of 10,000 years of animal husbandry. Furthermore, such collections must be accompanied by comprehensive descriptions of the animals and the populations from which they were obtained and the environments under which they were raised.

We should know the type of milking goat that is able to bounce back quickly from a drought. We should know the breeds of cow that resist infection with the animal form of sleeping sickness. We should know the native chickens that can survive avian flu.

We should do all we can to assist farmers and herders in the conservation of these endangered animals—especially now, in the midst of rapid agricultural development. And if some of these treasured breeds fail to survive the coming decades of change, we should at least have faithfully stored and recorded their presence, and have preserved their genes. It is these genes that will help us keep all our options open as we look for ways to feed humanity and to cope with coming, yet unforeseen, crises.

Putting livestock food on the climate-change table

It’s time for climate negotiators to put meat on the bones
of the next climate agreement

By Carlos Seré, Director General, ILRI

Mozambique, Tete province, Muchamba village

Worldwide our climate is changing, and livestock, which are vital to food security and to agricultural systems in most marginal regions of the world, must adapt to survive, as must the herders and farmers who keep them.

Livestock systems are a major global asset. They occupy 45% of the earth’s surface, employ at least 1.3 billion people, and are valued at about 1.4 trillion US dollars. They provide 17% of the calories and a third of the protein we consume. According to FAO, milk is the world’s number one agricultural commodity, worth about $144 billion annually, and meat from cows, pigs and chickens rank 3, 4 and 5, respectively.

These statistics, however, hide stark differences in how livestock are raised. In poor countries, most livestock are raised on small farms or herded by pastoralists. Throughout their (usually long) natural lives, they survive largely on grass and other vegetation, including the stalks, leaves and other ‘wastes’ of food crops after the grain has been harvested.

In contrast, most livestock in wealthy countries are ‘factory-farmed’ using industrial processes. These short-lived animals are quickly fattened by feeding them vast quantities of corn and other grains – food that could be eaten by people.

Livestock contribute about 18% of the global greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity. The vast majority of these emissions come from wealthy countries practicing factory farming. All of Africa’s ruminants combined, for example, account for only 3 percent of the global methane emissions from livestock.

Most farmers in developing countries practice either mixed-crop and-livestock farming or pastoral production on rangelands. These smallholders and herders leave tiny environmental footprints in terms of inputs. Even so, investments that increase their efficiency and productivity in terms of breeding and feeding could remove millions of tons of methane and carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

Livestock play central roles in the lives of the poor. If livestock are lost, households can slip into chronic “poverty traps”. Experts believe that climate change is particularly hurting Africa’s livestock and other food producers and the ecosystems on which they depend. And they predict things are going to get worse on the continent, probably much worse. The productivity of rain-fed cropping systems is likely to drop, and do so dramatically in some areas; water shortages will become more common; and important human, livestock and crop diseases are likely to spread to new regions and become more severe.

Many of the world’s small-scale livestock keepers will have to adapt, for example, by changing the mix of livestock species they keep and the types of crops they grow, or switching to new sources of feed for their animals. Some will probably have to get out of agriculture altogether.

When negotiators meet later this year in Copenhagen to finalize the global climate pact, they must pay attention to the many small farmers and herders who are already feeding most of the world’s poor. And they must begin to pay attention explicitly to farm animals that remain neglected by policymakers even as they become increasingly important to food security and raising smallholder incomes. African negotiators in particular need to be champion the cause of small-scale animal agriculture, which remains the backbone of their nations’ economies.

Food security and climate change are inextricably linked. Policymakers must become adept at moving on both fronts simultaneously. And if our climate negotiators hope to address the needs of more than a billion animal keepers n the world, they must begin to provide differentiated policies that support rather than neglect the multifarious small livestock enterprises that make food production possible throughout the developing world.

When worlds collide: Those who eat too much meat – and those who eat too little

Our concern for the environment is proper – and needn’t override concern for the livestock livelihoods of a billion poor people.
In late 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming. A study it had conducted, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, estimated that livestock are responsible for 18% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of all the world’s transport.

Animal rights groups grabbed this news and promoted it widely, saying that that keeping a cow was more damaging to the environment than running a sports utility vehicle (SUV) and that the answer was for the world to become vegetarian. Since then, several world leaders have repeated that livestock production is a major culprit in human as well as environmental ill health. Most people would agree that it is improper that a gas-guzzling SUV – a symbol of the rich – is considered a legitimate need, while a cow – a critical income and food source for a billion poor people – is not.

Of course, many people who eat too many animals products have a lot to gain from reducing their consumption of such high cholesterol foods. Unhealthy diets overloaded with fatty meat and dairy products is a leading cause of obesity, diabetes and circulatory disease, mostly in rich countries. But for one billion of the world’s poorest people today, eating less of something you don’t have any access to in the first place is not an option. We cannot fairly equate the problem of heart disease resulting from consuming too much cholesterol with the problem of the malnourishment and resulting death of millions of children under two years old due to their consumption of too little cholesterol. And we shouldn’t try. The health of everyone matters. What tends to get lost in these arguments is science-based evidence that we can work towards one health for all.

For example, all of Africa’s ruminants put together account for just 3% of the world’s methane emissions. So while it may make sense to reduce the number of livestock in rich countries, getting rid of Africa’s livestock populations would make little difference to global warming but would have catastrophic impacts on livelihoods and national economies. That’s because most of the world’s "bottom billion" rely on cows and other farm animals to earn income; without their farm animals, their livelihoods would disappear. And most poor livestock-dependent families don’t actually eat meat – they can’t afford to. They sell it to wealthier consumers and use the money they’ve earned to buy cheaper food.

Ultimately, we need a balanced approach to solving complex environmental problems, one that does not hurt the many people who depend on livestock for food and livelihoods. Asking a person in New York or London or Tokyo to reduce their meat consumption for the good of their health and that of the planet is one thing. It’s quite another to ask a household subsisting on a daily diet of maize meal porridge to do without any animal protein or any livestock income with which to buy more nourishing food.

Having said that, we do need solutions to environmental problems, including global warming, caused by the industrial production of livestock in rich countries. And we do need new livestock feeding systems that meet the needs and circumstances of the world’s small farmers—systems that would allow their farm animals to convert feed to meat and milk more efficiently, and with less emission of methane.

But to join up all our fragmented knowledge, we’re going to need a common currency with which to assess the costs and benefits of different activities and processes. This goes beyond simplistic solutions such as stopping the world from eating meat and dairy. We need fairer ways to look at carbon emissions and perhaps start looking at individuals’ carbon footprints. For example, Stephen Pacala says we should ‘follow the money to find the big emitters’ and he highlights that the richest 500 million people in the world (7% of the world’s population) is responsible for emitting half of the world’s total carbon dioxide. In comparison, the ‘bottom billion’ emits practically nothing. He proposes a cap on personal emissions.

These are the kinds of differentiated solutions we could be exploring and discussing. And with the help of science and equitable and evidence-based policymaking, we can tackle our concerns for the earth and all its people. It’s time our health—the health of the planet and the health of its people—were treated as a single health issue. Different solutions will be needed for different situations. This is within our powers. All we have to give up is the idea that one solution for one group must come at the expense of another.

Another ‘Inconvenient Truth’

ILRI director general Carlos Seré responds to an August 2007 New York Times article about animal rights groups promoting vegetarianism as an answer to global warming
Claudia Deutsch reports in the New York Times (29 August 2007, and picked up in the International Herald Tribune), that animal rights groups are coalescing around a message that ‘eating meat is worse for the environment than driving’. They are urging people to curb greenhouse gases by becoming vegetarians. These groups are citing a study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that states that livestock business generates greenhouse gases. That’s true; methane and carbon dioxide produced by livestock contribute about 15 per cent to global warming effects. But simply focusing on this contribution to global warming distorts the problem and, more importantly, fails to offer solutions. Research tells us it would make little difference to global warming if we somehow removed all the livestock in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. The impact on livelihoods there, however, would be catastrophic.

What the animal rights folks are not saying (and the FAO report does say) is that for some one billion people on earth who live in chronic hunger, in degrading poverty and in degraded environments, the lowly cow, sheep, goat, pig and chicken provide nutrition, income and major pathways out of poverty, just as they did, until this century, in rich countries. In poor countries today, more than 600 million rural poor people depend on livestock directly for their livelihoods and farm animals account for some 30 percent of agricultural gross domestic product, a figure FAO expects to rise to 40 percent in the next 20 years. Virtually every industrialized country at one stage built its economy significantly through livestock production and there is no indication that developing countries will be different. Do we want to deny one-third of humanity—the 2 billion people living on less than 2 dollars a day—what has been such a critical and ubiquitous element in the development of industrialized countries?

The animal rights groups argue that humanity could help stem global warming by switching to a plant-based diet because mass-production of animals can lead to environmental as well as health problems. But the livestock that eat grain in the United States eat grass in Africa. The beef that causes heart disease in Europe saves lives in Asia. And the manure that pollutes water in Utah restores soils in Africa. The world is big and full of difference between the have’s and have not’s. In one city, too much cholesterol is a daily fear; in another, too little. But for much of humanity, livestock farming, most of it involving one or two cows or a few goats and sheep or pigs and chickens raised on tiny plots of land or in urban backyards, reduces absolute poverty, malnutrition and disease and often actually helps to conserve natural resources.

Demand for livestock products is in any case skyrocketing in developing countries, making an increase in animal production in those countries inevitable and this argument academic. FAO and other groups are predicting that the impacts of this on-going ‘livestock revolution’ will change global agriculture, health, livelihoods, and the environment. We should be looking for ways not to stop this livestock revolution (which, being demand-led, is impossible) but rather to harness it for human as well as environmental welfare. And before setting ourselves the task of ridding the world of animal flesh, we might try ridding it instead of unspeakable poverty, hunger and disease. We need a balanced approach to solving complex environmental problems, one that does not hurt the many people who depend on livestock for food and livelihoods.