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Keep Them to Eat Them & Eat Them to Keep Them

A Bold New Approach to Preserving Rare Breed Livestock and Their Wealth of Genetic Diversity.


Over the last 40 years farm production has become industrialized. Historically, multi purpose, hardy livestock were raised on small farms with relatively low costs inputs for housing, care and feed. Now the agriculture industry depends on highly productive specialized breeds raised in controlled environments and requiring high-cost inputs for nutrition, housing and health care. Reproduction is driven by artificial and expensive breeding techniques: cryo preservation of germplasm (basically, cold storage of genetic material), artificial insemination and embryo transfers.

Farmers now rely on a few specialized breeds or strains of livestock increasingly managed by fewer and fewer farmers and controlled by large multi-national corporations. The breeds that were once the mainstay of North American agriculture are fast disappearing, their numbers dropping so low in some cases to be in danger of extinction.

In the natural environment, we recognise and value genetic diversity. The lost of the Giant Panda, and the plight of the elephant are known to most school children. However the loss of genetic diversity in domestic livestock is barely recognised or acknowledged.

The losses are significant and the impacts on our food supply and the environment are dire. The Holstein cow dominates our national dairy herd, once made up of a variety of breeds including Ayrshires, Guernseys, and Jerseys. Over 95 per cent of Canadian dairy products come from Holsteins—a breed whose genetic diversity has been seriously eroded by a breeding strategy selecting only the mostly highly productive sires and their sons and grandsons, using cryo technology and artificial insemination. In selection for high productivity commercial breeders can sacrifice traits that are no longer valued such as disease resistance, mothering ability and natural reproductive ability.

Is there a future for heritage livestock?

The Slow Food movement has done a terrific job in reawakening interest in foods selected for flavour and having deep roots in regional and traditional farm settings. The organic movement documents the potential hazards of relying on food products that are laden with hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. Environmental groups have publicized the toll of intensive industrialized food operations. Slowly, the demand for flavourful food, from older breeds that thrive under natural conditions, is growing.

Despite these advances, the outlook is still not good for rare breeds. Rare Breeds Canada does an annual count of registered heritage animals based on new registrations and confirmed populations of female animals. It produces a Priority List each year, (see ), rating the degree of peril that each breed faces: Critical, Endangered, Vulnerable or At Risk. In the past year, of the 65 breeds of livestock and 37 breeds of poultry, there have been no significant gains. In the swine industry the picture is particularly bleak as major breeders sell their herds. The Lacombe, Pietrain, Hampshire and Poland China have had no registrations in four years. While these breeds may be used in industrial settings, without registrations, there is no way of tracking their numbers, pedigrees or owners and no way of determining the breath of genetic diversity. They could be thriving in proprietary herds, or they could be extinct. The records tell us nothing.

Furthermore, for farmers and conservationists, the road back to genetic stability in our heritage livestock is daunting. With small populations of animals across the country, preventing erosion of the genetic base involves transporting animals for breeding, and using many of the expensive industrial techniques such as maintaining sperm banks, artificial insemination, and embryo transplants.
The efforts falter as older farmers or their families, are selling their herds of heritage animals—often at the sale barns and for slaughter. Because inventories are inadequate and networks informal there is no way to find others committed to the breed or to obtain the premium prices these animals should command.
The Canadian Government has no program to track or provide inventories of heritage livestock in Canada. The conservation of our nation’s heritage animals must not be left to Rare Breeds Canada and a few private individuals with limited resources. The broad base of genetic diversity is leaking away every day. The finger in the dyke is weakening and the pressure is increasing.

However, there is hope. People concerned with the preservation of rare breeds now believe that, rather than simply raising rare breeds for no other end than reproduction (as admirable as that is) the best way to achieve preservation of rare breeds is to encourage people to eat them. Yes, you read that correctly. Eat them.

Reasons for the decline in popularity of heritage animals.

The colour barrier. Coloured animals are not welcome in the commercial system. Increasingly, abattoirs are reluctant to handle coloured livestock. Skinning is required to remove the coloured skin in pigs–in poultry, black ink in the feathers requires cleaning the machines and this slows down the line. Prior to industrialization, this was not a concern when small local abattoirs catered to local needs. The farmer now has to conform to the demands of commercial processing and choose livestock accordingly.

Hogging the market. Corporate control of swine breeding is increasing following the lead of the broiler and egg breeding industry which is now controlled by only four corporations. Distinct breed populations are used extensively to create selected lines, either pure or composite. In pure lines, individuals are not necessarily registered. The Lacombe pig, the only swine breed developed in Canada, is used in commercial operations. However, small farmers no longer have access to them.

Living in confinement. Canadian dairy, swine, chicken, and turkey industries use standard environments that require standardised animals. Processing facilities require animals that are uniform in size, carcass composition, and colour, which encourages standardization of breeds and of animal types within breeds. This has resulted in a significant loss of genetic diversity.

The problem with horns. Many heritage breeds of sheep and cattle were horned. These animals are not welcome in commercial systems and production lines. Horned animals take more room at feeders and in the crowded feedlots they can hurt one another.

Grass vs. grain. Grain-fed animals grow faster than grass fed animals and in the market equation, the sooner you can get an animal to market the better. However, ruminants (sheep and cattle) are grazers, not designed to eat grain. Some heritage breeds, for instance the Canadienne cow, performs poorly if fed a grain-rich diet. Many producers rely on antibiotics to maintain the health of stock on rich diets and hormones to further boost growth.

Seasonality. The demands of the market require a uniform product available year round. Heritage animals, like most animals, have a reproductive and maturation cycle that does not lend itself to year-round availability without climate controlled housing and artificially accelerated breeding and finishing. Grass fed produce in most of Canada is necessarily a seasonal product.

Slow maturity. Many heritage animals are slow to mature. Heritage turkeys by definition take 26-28 weeks to come to the table, whereas commercial birds are ready at about 20 weeks. Highland Cattle on grass can take eight months longer to finish than commercial breeds. The full flavour of heritage produce depends on this slower maturation, but industrial producers must move much more quickly to retain their small profit margins. These slow animals have no place in their production line.

Styles change. Tradition animals are typically stocky and low to the ground. However these animals are not getting the ribbons in the show ring. The winners now are animals that have been bred for height and size. When breeding for highly productive characteristics only, genetic resources become narrowed and the loss of genetic material is certain. If a heritage trait such as hardiness is lost in the quest to have a more productive animal, it is next to impossible to breed it back in because the genetics have disappeared.

We’re cheap. Canadians enjoy some of the cheapest food in the industrial world. To have this cheap food, we are content to trade off taste, quality and, some say, our health to have cheap meat and poultry that is industrially produced like widgets.

Why eat them to keep them and keep them to eat them?

Because farmers need to make a living. There can be no romantic notion about keeping heritage animals as lawn ornaments. They must be bred, and bred carefully to maintain the genetic base. Farmers must have a return on their investment and that means that in an established herd, animals will be sold for meat.

Because we must create demand and develop markets. If the product is not available, it is impossible to develop a market. Fortunately there is a growing market for the older breeds, however demand is often greater than supply. In a recent e-mail, Karen Plunkett, an Ontario breeder of Large Black Pigs, tells customers

I am also all sold out of pork…they were either sold as registered breeding stock or went for meat. I have another litter of pigs that will be ready this summer but they are all sold for breeding stock or meat also. So I will not have pork available for a year and a half (the following fall). They take a year to grow and I will be taking orders soon. In the meantime, if you are looking for healthier, tastier, organic pork contact me and I may have some contacts.

Because they provide a healthy and environmentally sound alternative to industrial food. Farmers of heritage breeds typically look to the long-term benefits of their operations and take care not deplete their resources. Vet care and antibiotics are minimal, because these hardy breeds are easy keepers and thrive on traditional farming operations.

Because it is important to support local farmers. These products are available locally because shipping would make them prohibitively expensive. Local networks are needed, abattoir facilities expanded, and marketing rules developed that make it profitable for farmers to keep heritage livestock.

We must take action now before we lose the traditional breeds that are hardy, disease resistant and well suited to natural production methods. These breeds are the gene pool, the only source of genetic material that exists to produce future generations of livestock. Many breeds are facing extinction, or severe loss of genetic diversity. Support is needed from farmers, governments, and those who value traditional livestock.