The Hidden 1,458 Potential Extinctions That Could Upend Our Food Supply

The world is full of cows and chickens, but many breeds are being ignored and lost, along with their important genes.

We hear a lot about extinction these days. Rhinos, monkeys, frogs, polar bears—all manner of species are in decline and in the public eye.

But some extinctions are a bit less visible. In fact, there are a shocking 1,458 pending extinctions that almost nobody is talking about.

These potential extinctions, according to a new report from the United Nations, are all breeds of agricultural animals: cattle, goats, pigs, chickens, and so on, the kinds of livestock that humans rely upon for food and labor around the world. If they disappear—due to disease, climate change, inbreeding or other scenario—so could a large portion of what the planet eats. Preserving these genetic resources, therefore, could be the key to food security and sustainability in the coming century.

All told, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that at least 17 percent of the world's 8,774 recorded agricultural breeds are at now risk of extinction. The causes vary, but mostly it's due to the increasing worldwide use of non-native breeds and the neglect of breeds that aren't "competitive" on the global market.

"Governments have to be interested in keeping their genetic resources."

In other words, they don't produce as much meat, milk, eggs or other goods as the most popular commercial breeds. Since the farming industry worldwide have increasingly adopted a more centralized and industrialized method of food production, that means a lot of breeds that aren't suited to that model get tossed by the wayside.

The threat is hardly theoretical. According to the FAO, we have already lost approximately 100 animal breeds so far this century.

Why does the loss of one cow breed matter when the world is home to nearly a billion cows around the globe? Keeping these breeds alive will be an important step toward preserving food security in many areas of the world that need it most.

These rare breeds aren't your popular Holstein cattle or the broad-breasted bronze turkey you buy for Thanksgiving. They're breeds like the Yakutian cattle, which has been selectively bred for centuries to be able to live in conditions up to -60 °C. There's also the Pantaneiro cattle, which can resist parasites that would knock out commercial breeds. Some species help preserve the local environment, such as the Engadine sheep, which nearly went extinct 30 years ago but now helps control invasive plants, or the lightweight Swiniarka sheep of Poland, which is ideal for grazing fragile grasslands that heavier animals would crush. Other animals are uniquely adapted to survive on very little water, live in high elevations, or to resist certain diseases or parasites.

The Cubalaya chicken, a threatened breed from Cuba. Image: Kruppert/Wikimedia

"We have a lot of challenges in the world," said Beate Scherf, program officer with the FAO's Sustainable Agriculture Program. "We have an increasing population. We are more dependent on the environment than ever before. We need specific adaptations to help us cope with all of these challenges in the future. These adaptations are found in these local breeds, which are usually the smaller breeds, not the international ones."

The FAO warns that the homogeneity of the world's food supply creates a wide range of threats. When all of the animals in a region are of the same breed, they could all be wiped out by a single disease or parasite. Climate change could make regions less hospitable for some breeds. Inbreeding could cause all kinds of genetic and morphological problems. As it is, every Holstein on the planet can be genetically traced back to two males born in the 1880s. "They're all sons or daughters of the same father," Scherf said.

These warnings aren't new. Previous research has cautioned that the majority of meats in the US now comes from just a handful of breeds, putting our food supply at risk from sudden changes and pressures. (Of course, there's the added benefit that every McDonald's hamburger tastes exactly the same.)

The US has had many breeds go out of favor due to mechanization, said Ryan Walker, communications manager for The Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving what it calls "heritage" breeds. "Basically, we've had a move toward efficiency and quantity versus quality," he said. "As a country, we prioritize cheap food over animal welfare, over adaptability to different climates, over parasite resistance, mothering instincts—all these other traits that go along with livestock."

However, the US food supply is actually probably relatively secure, said Scherf, because of our temperate climate. In the developing world, however, the loss of native-adapted breeds could mean the difference between having enough to eat and starvation. "In developing countries, it is lifesaving," she said.

To help solve this problem, the FAO is encouraging each of the 129 countries that participated in its report to come up with their own national action plans to save their local breeds. "Governments have to be interested in keeping their genetic resources," Scherf said. She said the best route would be for governments to establish and invest in their own breeding programs which can take local breeds and over the course of many generations make them more productive, just like we've done with Holsteins.

"If you invest in a breeding program, you have a cumulative gain," Scherf said. "Each successive generation produces more and more." Over the course of 20 to 40 years, that could create a more economically valuable livestock breed while maintaining the most important locally adapted genes. Unfortunately, Scherf said, the investment to make this effort has rarely, if ever, been made to date.

Some governments have started work to preserve their share of the 1,458 at-risk breeds. For example, 64 countries have established gene banks to date, and another 41 have plan to create their own. Meanwhile, FAO has published a global plan of action for animal genetic resources and, using that as a framework, is encouraging each nation to develop their own local plans. About half of the world's nations now have a plan in place or are in the process of developing one.

But what's out there besides that 1,458 at-risk breeds? The FAO report is much more thorough than an earlier report the agency issued three years ago, but there are still huge data gaps. According to the report, we simply don't know the status of 58 percent of the world's agricultural breeds. They could be equally endangered, or even already gone, but no one is looking into them yet.

Still, Scherf said it's important to focus on what we do know. "It's more important to know we have a tiny population of a breed so we can focus on its genetic variability," she said. "That's more important than something that is really gone."