A special facility to preserve heritage livestock breeds by freezing their semen and embryos is striving to safeguard thousands of rare breeds at risk of extinction and protect our future food supply. Established by the SVF Foundation on an estate in Vermont, USA the project has already collected 45,000 samples of 20 rare breeds of cattle, sheep and goats, using a technique called cryopreservation in which the specimens are frozen in liquid nitrogen.
‘For all their efficiency and high output, modern livestock breeds have become a weak, inbred bunch’, said Dr. George Saperstein, the Foundation’s chief scientific adviser. For example, Holstein cows today make up 93 percent of America’s dairy herd with less than 20 champion bulls responsible for half the herd’s genes.
Should a disease epidemic or other disaster hit the handful of common, highly inbred breeds now relied upon for food, heritage breeds could help to save modern animal husbandry. “Think of this as a safety valve program,” said Dr. Saperstein, “If there was a disaster, if something like the potato famine of livestock ever hit, these frozen embryos would be made available, and in one generation we would be back in business.”
The Foundation holds genetic material for many breeds neglected by modern agribusiness because of their lower efficiency or production output. The collection includes breeds such as the Tennessee Fainting Goat; the Cotswold sheep, considered too big and slow-growing for commercial acceptance; and the Sleek Milking Devon cattle which is unfavored because of it is dual-purpose livestock in a time when cattle are selected for their ability to produce massive amounts of either milk or beef.
‘Heritage breeds have not been continuously “improved” by humans,’ explained Mr. Borden, the executive director of the SVF Foundation. “They have been shaped by natural survival-of-the-fittest forces and can get along without human intervention. [These animals] don’t need a lot of attention. They do well on small pastures, and require no grain…We have to eat these animals to save them. Ultimately, food is the reason heritage breeds are important.’
The Foundation adds to the work of organizations such as the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy that have been working to preserve heritage livestock through natural reproduction, and Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity projects that support breeders of these animals. ‘On-the-hoof conservation is important,’ Mr. Borden said. ‘Used in conjunction with it, cryopreservation is a great long-term solution.’
Source: The New York Times
Find out about The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity’s work to protect rare breeds: www.slowfoodfoundation.org