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If Variety Is the Spice of Life, Then Meat Got a Lot Blander

May. 2, 2014

By Josiah Lockhart, Executive Manager, Lockhart Family Farm

It is well known that every living (and often non-living) thing plays a part in an area’s ecosystem and that a strong biodiversity is important. Remove the wrong one and the whole system goes awry. Very rarely though, do we talk about this dichotomy when we discuss agriculture and the species we eat. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates America has now lost at least 95% of its edible species (75% globally), and more than 90% of each meat market is now dominated by single breeds. Take the turkey for example. In the 1960’s the Broad Breasted Bronze was overtaken by the Broad Breasted White as the prize turkey breed for the industry due to its fast rate of growth. The White was eventually developed to grow to table weight in less than half the time as the traditional turkey and for ease of processing on mass. As a result, the White now makes up 98.8% of the market. The caveat with this faster rate of growth is that the White can no longer reproduce naturally, relying on artificial insemination for its breeds survival. With many negative implications, its gene pool and breed survival is 100% reliant on human intervention.

With animals being bred for industrial agriculture, these national gene pools are becoming more and more limited. And, limited genetic diversity makes our food less secure allowing viruses and super-bugs to transmit very quickly through our industrial agriculture system. Just this past year a new swine virus called PEDv emerged and spread so rapidly that it has led to the deaths of over 7 million pigs across thirty states, and shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, pork prices have risen 45% in just the last 4 months.

Traditionally animal diseases have been warded off through regional diversity by developing breeds to exhibit characteristics suited for specific conditions and resistant to specific diseases. But today when the “regional conditions” consist of a concrete building with animals shoulder to shoulder, and a mechanized processing facility, it is hard to promote genetic diversity, and fast spreading disease can only be combatted with preventative medicating.

Lockhart Farm TurkeyOne of the best ways to encourage a more healthy livestock bio-diversity is to encourage more farmers and consumers to work with pre-industrial breeds. Not only do many of them hold the keys making our food system more secure, but they taste much better as well. Slow Food’s Ark of Taste and Presidia programs and the Livestock Conservancy’s livestock priority lists are great places to start learning more about what breeds have been lost, and what we can do to save them.

This will be one of the many important issues delegates will take on at the Slow Meat 2014 symposium in Denver this June.

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