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Celebrating and Preserving Livestock Genetic Diversity

Aug. 18, 2014

Ralph Loglisci, Slow Meat 2014 delegate

The list of names of the more than 100 Slow Meat delegates reads like a Who’s Who of the sustainable food animal world. Many are farmers, ranchers and veterinarians who are working to preserve endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.

During one of the several break out sessions delegates discussed the benefits and difficulties of raising heritage breed animals. Not surprisingly, farmers raising heritage breeds that best suited the land they were raised on experienced little difficulty. In fact, most animals rarely required medical treatment or medicine, unlike their conventionally bred cousins that make up the majority of the 9 Billion food animals produced in the USA each year. Most of the difficulties discussed were not about raising animals but finding markets that will cover their costs.

Celebrating and Preserving Livestock Genetic Diversity (1)

Jeannette Beranger, Research & Technical Programs Manager for The Livestock Conservancy, pointed out that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared biodiversity is key to maintain a sustainable and fair food system for future generations.

In 2006, the FAO reported that of the 7,600 breeds in their Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources, 190 became extinct with a 15 year span and 1,500 were considered “at risk” of extinction. Just among breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry, within 5 years, 60 breeds were lost. That’s an average of one breed a month. By now almost 100 additional breeds are most likely extinct.

According to The Livestock Conservancy, “A mere 14 species provide 90 percent of the human food supply from animals.” Additionally the Conservancy found that in the USA, 91 percent of the nation’s dairy stock are Holstein cows; 90 percent of the nation’s turkeys come from seven strains of large white turkeys. Out of the 60 breeds of chicken that were raised before World War II, only 5 industrial breeds supply the majority of our chicken meat and brown eggs; and white eggs are almost exclusively from a single breed of industrial white leghorns.

Celebrating and Preserving Livestock Genetic Diversity (2)

FAO leaders say that maintaining genetic biodiversity in plants and animals will ensure future generations will have available to them new breeds of animals better able to cope with unforeseen risks, such as disease or extreme climate changes.

Slow Food International’s Dr. Sergio Capaldo, a veterinarian by training, is working in Italy to find ways to support farmers who are working to preserve genetic biodiversity in food animals. In 1996, Dr. Capaldo told Slow Meat delegates, as Coordinator for Slow Food International’s National Livestock and Breeding projects he reached out to slaughter houses, distributors, restaurants and marketers to ensure heritage breed farmers and ranchers would be paid a fair price.

In an effort to preserve biodiversity, Slow Food international created an online catalog, known as the Ark of Taste, which lists small-scale produced foods at risk of disappearing across the globe. To help support small artisan producers sell their goods at a fair price the Presidia program was created. The goals of the Presidia are to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods by stabilizing production techniques, establishing stringent production standards, and promoting local consumption.

Many delegates who were butchers, slaughterhouse owners, suppliers and distributors were eager to discuss and share with other delegates their successes and failures. For many, demand for their services is so great that the biggest problem is having to turn away customers.

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