Biodiversity of Farm Animals
Farm animal biodiversity is important for maintaining genetically diverse and healthy livestock. However, this diversity is being threatened by industrial farming operations that depend on a small number of farm animal breeds that can thrive in an intensive livestock environment. Because of this, farm animal breeds that don't thrive in factory farming operations are becoming more and more rare.
By narrowing the genetic base for our farm animals, we are essentially putting all our eggs in one basket. Some animals have traits that allow resistance to certain diseases or more resilience in harsh weather conditions. We may not know which genetic traits will be useful in the future, so by limiting breeding to just a few breeds of animal, we are creating a precarious situation for the future of our food supply.
Loss of Rare Breeds
Rare farm animal breeds are disappearing partly as a result of factory farming practices and policies that support these large farms, but these breeds are necessary to maintain the health of our agriculture system.
Rare breeds include chickens, ducks, goats, cows, geese, pigs, horses and turkeys that may once have been farmed commercially but now risk extinction. Rare Breeds Canada keeps track of the number of registered animals in the breeds, which gives an idea of the degree to which they are threatened.
According to the FAO, “Of the more than 7,600 breeds in FAO's Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources, 190 have become extinct in the past 15 years and a further 1,500 are considered "at risk" of extinction. Country reports to FAO's first State of the world's animal genetic resources published in 2007, show that 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have been lost over the last five years, an average rate of one breed a month.”
In Canada, farms are getting bigger as companies are buying more land, leaving small and mid-size farmers with little place to go. In 1971, 122,500 hog farms existed; as of 2001, that number had dropped to 15,500. Over the same time, the average number of hogs per farm has increased from 66 to 902. For dairy farms, the story has been similar. 145,000 dairy farms in 1971 shrank to 21,900 as of 2001, with average herd sizes increasing from 16 to 48. Farms are getting bigger as land is being bought up by corporations while the small farmers, who are more likely to raise rare breeds, are being pushed off the land. Adding to this, the recent recession coupled with farmers' debt issues are helping to create a hostile environment for small farmers.
Genetic Concentration: Starbuck
Intensive livestock operations also threaten breed diversity by narrowing the genetic base of popular breeds. Hanoverhill Starbuck, a Canadian Holstein bull, is one example of this genetic concentration. Considered to be near-perfect, Starbuck and his sons and daughters have been widely praised. Over his lifetime, Starbuck has produced more than 200,000 daughters worldwide and 685,000 doses of his semen have been sold in 45 countries. In Canada alone, Starbuck has sired 60,000 daughters. Interestingly, 93% of Canadian dairy heifers born since 2003 are descendents of Starbuck. Even more alarming, 99% of Canadian heifers born since 2003 are genetically related to Starbuck's sire, Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation. Profit related to breeding Starbuck has been in the millions of dollars. By breeding so extensively with Starbuck and Elevation's genetic material, genetic diversity for Holsteins has been drastically diminished.
Two years after Starbuck's death in 1998, Starbuck II was born. Starbuck II is a clone of the original Starbuck; he even looks and acts like him. While regulations prevent him from being bred in Canada, there are plans to export his semen to some Latin American countries and to the US, where it is legal.
The Enviropig is a genetically-engineered pig that can digest phosphorus in grain-based feed more easily than non-GE pigs. Phosphorus is normally excreted in pigs' manure; too much phosphorus in the environment can harm waterways and kill aquatic life. Developed at the University of Guelph and funded in part by Ontario Pork and the federal government, the Enviropig is one example of how the Canadian government and our universities are promoting the use of genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) in the food system. By focusing research on developing genetically engineered farm animals, and then patenting those animals universities are accelerating the loss of farm animal biodiversity and furthering corporate control of livestock breeding. In April 2012 the University of Guelph ended the Enviropig project and the remaining genetically engineered pigs were euthanized after Ontario Pork withdrew its support. The funding was withdrawn due to public antipathy towards genetically modified animals. The DNA of the pigs was frozen and is being stored by the Animal Genetic Resources Program in Saskatoon.
For more information about Enviropig, please see BFF's campaign site, Think Eat Act.