According to the FAO, there are 7,745 local animal breeds in the world, of which 26% are classified as being at risk of extinction. Just 7% are considered not at risk, while 67% are of unknown risk status. In Europe, half of the breeds in existence at the start of the 20th century have now vanished.
When a breed dies out, it is lost forever. This loss is enormous, and not just in terms of genetics, because each breed reflects a story, an ecosystem, a culture, a food craft, a gastronomic tradition, an economy.
Slow Food catalogues breeds at risk of extinction in the Ark of Taste and works to safeguard them with the Presidia.
To save local breeds, it is essential to promote and add value to the foods made from their milk or meat, including cheeses and fresh or cured meats. This is perhaps the only way to ensure that farming them remains profitable and that the number of animals stops declining.
Why is it important to save local breeds?
- Because over time they have adapted to different climates and habitats, to remote and hostile environments—arid, cold, swampy—and marginal areas, where the presence of humans actually helps protect the environment.
- Because the genetic heritage of local breeds can be useful for research and for selecting hardier, more resistant More genetically diverse animal populations are also less susceptible to large-scale epidemics. Some local breeds are much more resistant to certain diseases than are selected breeds (also known as international or commercial breeds). West Africa’s n’dama cattle, for example, can tolerate the fever spread by tsetse flies, and the Vicentina sheep, of which only a hundred are left (in the 19th century the Asiago plateau was home to over 200,000) is the only sheep breed resistant to scrapie, a form of spongiform encephalopathy caused by a similar agent to BSE (mad cow disease).
- Because local breeds, if farmed sustainably in their local areas, provide milk and meat of high quality for the production of cheeses and cured meats. Native cattle, for example, produce less milk than commercial breeds, but their milk tends to have a higher level of fats and casein, which are important for producing quality cheeses.