Around 20 percent of animal breeds are at risk of extinction, with one breed lost each month, FAO said today.

Of the more than 7 600 breeds in FAO's global database of farm animal genetic resources, 190 have become extinct in the past 15 years and a further 1 500 are considered at risk of extinction. Some 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have been lost over the last five years, according to a draft document presented this week in Rome, when over 150 participants from more than 90 countries met at FAO headquarters to review the report’s findings and to discuss priorities for action to reverse the loss of animal genetic diversity worldwide.

The report, the State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources, is the first-ever global assessment of the status of animal genetic resources and the capacity of countries to manage them in a sustainable manner. It provides a comprehensive overview highlighting the importance of the livestock sector within agriculture. Comprising information from 169 countries, the final report will be published to mark the first International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, hosted by the Government of Switzerland, in Interlaken in September 2007. The conference is expected to adopt a global action plan to halt the loss of animal genetic resources and improve their sustainable use, development and conservation. Globalization Livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 1 billion people worldwide, and approximately 70 percent of the world’s rural poor depend on livestock as an important component of their livelihoods.

Livestock currently accounts for about 30 percent of agricultural gross domestic product in developing countries, a figure projected to increase to nearly 40 percent by 2030. The globalization of livestock markets is the biggest single factor affecting farm animal diversity, FAO says. Traditional production systems require multi-purpose animals, which provide a range of goods and services. Modern agriculture has developed specialized breeds, optimizing specific production traits, which have achieved striking productivity increases but depend on high external input. Only 14 of the more than 30 domesticated mammalian and bird species provide 90 percent of human food supply from animals.

”Five species: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens, provide the majority of food production,” says Irene Hoffmann, Chief of FAO’s Animal Production Service. “Selection in high-output breeds is focussed on production traits and tends to underrate functional and adaptive traits. This process leads to a narrowing genetic base both within the commercially successful breeds and as other breeds, and indeed species, are discarded in response to market forces.”

But the existing animal gene pool contains valuable resources for future food security and agricultural development, particularly in harsh environments. “Maintaining animal genetic diversity will allow future generations to select stocks or develop new breeds to cope with emerging issues, such as climate change, diseases and changing socio-economic factors,” says José Esquinas-Alcázar, Secretary of FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Because of countries’ interdependence on animal genetic resources, there is a need to facilitate the continued exchange and further development of these resources, without unnecessary barriers and to ensure that benefits reach farmers, pastoralists, breeders, consumers and society as a whole, Esquinas says.

“The Conference in Interlaken next year will provide countries a historic opportunity to formulate a common strategy to address the ongoing erosion of animal genetic resources and to better use them for food security and sustainable development,” he adds.