ROME, 28th January, 2016 (WAM) – The genetic diversity of livestock can play a vital role in feeding the world in the face of hotter weather and other effects of climate change, yet many valuable breeds continue to be at risk, the United Nations agricultural agency has warned, calling for stronger global efforts to safeguard the existing gene pool.

“Genetic diversity is a prerequisite for adaptation in the face of future challenges,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, Director-General, Jose Graziano da Silva, has said, releasing a new agency report highlighting the need to ensure that animal genetic resources are used to promote global food security and remain available for future generations.

Indiscriminate cross-breeding is the main cause of genetic erosion, according to the FAO’s Second Report on the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which also cited the increasing use of non-native breeds, weak regulation, the decline of traditional production and neglect of breeds considered not competitive enough.

Beyond climate change, future challenges include emerging diseases, pressure on land and water, and shifting market demands, which make it more important than ever to ensure animal genetic resources are conserved and used sustainably.

Cross-breeding, embraced by developing countries which import genetic material to enhance milk productivity and speed up an animal’s path to maturity, can lead to loss of valuable characteristics such as the ability to cope with extremes of temperature, limited water supplies, poor-quality feed, rough terrain, high altitudes and other challenging environmental conditions.

According to the report, 1,458 of the world’s farm animal breeds, about 17 percent of the total, are currently at risk of extinction, while the risk status of 58 percent is simply unknown due to lack of data on the size and structure of their populations.

Nearly 100 livestock breeds worldwide became extinct between 2000 and 2014, with Europe/Caucasus and North America the two areas with the highest proportion of at-risk breeds. Both areas are characterised by highly specialised livestock industries that tend to use only a small number of breeds for production.

A total of 129 countries participated in the new global assessment, which comes nearly a decade after the First Report in 2007 and suggests there has been some improvement since then as governments overall have stepped up efforts to halt genetic erosion and manage their breeds more sustainably.

In 2007, fewer than 10 countries reported having established a gene bank. That number has now risen to 64 and an additional 41 are planning to establish such banks.

“Over the last decade, countries across Europe have invested heavily in building shared information systems and gene banks as security measures,” said FAO Animal Production Officer, Beate Scherf, a co-author of the new report.