Cash Cows

28 Jan 2008

The sinewy Ankole breed, well adapted to the harsh conditions of East Africa, is struggling today to compete with foreign cattle imports bred for maximum production. Scientists are expressing concern that this scenario, repeated around the world, is threatening the future of many native breeds, hence genetic diversity.

In recent decades, global trade, sophisticated marketing, artificial insemination and the demands of agricultural economics have made the Holstein cow the world’s predominant dairy breed. Despite skepticism from local herders, reluctant to deviate from tradition and wary of the Holstein’s expensive appetite and proneness to illness, the introduction of this breed into Uganda has been very successful.

The Holstein’s most alluring quality is that it makes money. In an African environment, a good animal can produce 20 or 30 times as much milk as an Ankole.

However, while the volume of milk produced in Uganda doubled between 1993 and 2003, demand did not increase and delivery systems failed to improve, leaving the product to literally flood the market. With price per liter falling, dairy farmers have had to stock Holsteins just to maintain their regular profit margins.

The world’s food supply is increasingly dependent on a small and narrowing list of highly engineered breeds such as the Holstein cow, the Large White pig and the Rhode Island Red and Leghorn chickens. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently reported that at least 20 percent of the world’s estimated 7,600 livestock breeds are in danger of extinction and experts warn of a ‘meltdown’ in global genetic diversity.

In poor countries, which possess much of the world’s vanishing biodiversity, new populations of standardized breeds risk being devastated by future disease or environmental changes. Simultaneously, the undiscovered genetic advantages of indigenous breeds risk being lost.

Ankole cattle are said to possess much worth saving. Their horns, for example, are actually capable of dispersing excess body heat. Holsteins, on the other hand, aren’t well adapted to the heat or the harsh African environment. While they can survive for years, a slight deterioration of conditions through drought or the outbreak of disease can wipe out entire herds.

The exact Ankole population is unknown. ‘We’ve been saying the Ankoles are 50 percent of the national herd, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,’ says Dr Denis Mpairwe, an animal scientist at Uganda’s Makerere University. ‘Crossbreeding in the last five years has been so intense.’ According to forecasts by the International Livestock Research Institute, Ankoles could be extinct in 50 years.

The New York Times

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