2010 is International Year of Biodiverisity - How are farm animals doing?

Thousands of species are in danger of extinction, and many can be found in the last place you might think...

The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, and not a moment too soon, because around the globe species from all walks of life are disappearing at roughly 1,000 times the natural rate. The term biodiversity, which simply means variety of life, instantly conjures images of rich natural ecosystems like tropical rainforests and coral reefs. But life’s diversity is not confined to the wilderness. Since the dawn of agriculture humans have painstakingly cultivated an abundant assortment of crops and livestock that have proven their worth over time by providing for our very survival. And this irreplaceable inheritance is in greater peril than you may think.

Over the last half century modern commercial agriculture has opted to cultivate relatively few breeds and varieties of species in its single-minded pursuit of cost savings and efficiency. For livestock producers, this has meant an emphasis on breeds that meet a narrow range of characteristics such as the animal’s size, growth rate, and ability to withstand the crowded conditions found on a typical factory farm. As a result, throughout the world, breeds of farm animals are disappearing at a rate of one per month.

Historically, farmers set great store in other qualities when selecting livestock. Breeds that thrived under local climate conditions or on available feed were encouraged, as were those that gave birth to young with few complications. Chickens that made great layers and broilers were prized rather than one or the other. Likewise cattle that could be milked for years before they went to slaughter. And hardy livestock naturally resistant to ailments and disease were sought after as they were not fed the steady diet of antibiotics that comes standard with modern production methods.

Over centuries, the broad spectrum of characteristics valued by farmers throughout the world produced an amazing variety within domesticated species. These ‘heritage breeds’ form a legacy that today is increasingly threatened by extinction. Worldwide, roughly 30 per cent are at risk.

Meanwhile, intensive livestock operations increasingly rely on a very narrow gene pool of factory farm-adapted breeds. The loss of biodiversity within industrial livestock production leads to problems such as excessive aggression, inability to breed naturally, brittle bones, and poor immunity. At the same time, these operations dominate our food production system, pushing out farmers that raise biodiverse heritage breeds on a small scale and outdoors. The resulting irreversible loss of biodiversity diminishes both our heritage and our options for the future.

As factory farms proliferate, traditional farms raising heritage breeds disappear and with them names like Canadienne Cow, Barred Rock hen, Tamworth Pig and Broad Breasted Bronze Turkey are consigned to the history books. This phenomenon extends beyond our borders as Canadian factory farmed exports also compete with and undermine heritage producers abroad.

Diminishing livestock diversity affects more than producers. Options at the dinner table are reduced as well- chefs have a smaller palette of flavours to work with, and the range of options for specialty foodstuffs like cured meats and cheeses is limited.

When biodiversity suffers, we all do. We forfeit our heritage along with our prospects and future potential in return for a world where the variety of life and the wealth that springs from it is diminished. But we can easily influence the state of biodiversity here in Canada and around the globe, for better or worse, every time we choose what to eat. It’s food for thought.