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Conservation and sustainable use of animal genetic resources

In 12,000 years of domestication of animals about 700 breeds have been created by humans. However, it has been acknowledged for more than a decade that there is a large dependency on very few species of domestic plants and animals to provide food and nutrition to the world’s human population. Maize, potatoes, wheat and rice on one hand and poultry, swine, beef cattle, dairy cattle and sheep on the other, represent the few genetic resources currently supporting the production of food in the world, and to make the dependence worse there are few strains represented in these species. The intensification of production systems and the international trade of so called improved genotypes have induced the substitution of local breeds and in some case their extinction. As an example, the Holstein breed of dairy cattle represents more than 90% of all milk producing cows in several developed and developing countries. While the improved breeds may increase productivity, they also increase production costs, as more expensive feedstuffs, vaccines, medicines and facilities are required to achieve their potential of production. The increase in costs causes that the marginal profit per unit of production decreases and therefore more animals are required to make the production systems profitable. Under intensive systems up to 65% of costs are represented by feed costs. Thus only large livestock companies or large farmer cooperatives in developed and developing countries have taken advantage of highly selected strains of farm animals. Those companies or cooperatives are also capable of processing animal products into pasteurized milk, powder milk, frozen and cured meats, etc. and thus participate in several links of the market chains positioning themselves to be able to collect on the added value of their products. In contrast, medium and small farmers obtain animal products mainly from improved local breeds and with less intensive production systems. These farmers sell their animals or products to the middle man, who pays them at unfair prices and who collects on the added value of the transformed products. Subsistence farmers, who keep animals mainly for self consumption, utilize mainly unimproved local rare breeds. These two last situations are far more common in developing countries. The local breeds have some advantages over imported improved breeds, mainly disease resistance, heat tolerance and the capability to use local feedstuffs, as they have evolved in the local environment for hundreds of years in some cases. On the other hand improved breed are highly dependent on controlled environments free of pathogens and on feeds that are in some cases expensive and imported from other countries. Thus a major outbreak of a disease, like poultry influenza or swine fever, or a food crisis like the recent one on grains, make improved breeds and intensive systems very susceptible.... Read more