'Industrial Agriculture Puts Squeeze on Viable Livestock Breeds

Even as far back as 1842 in Europe there was concern about livestock breeds that were disappearing.

The Irish Dun cattle, according to an observer of the time, ''will probably in a few years cease to be found.''

It took a little longer. In 1974, exactly 132 years later, the Irish Dun was officially declared extinct, shoved aside by commercial expediency and outright neglect.

''This is pretty much the story throughout agriculture,'' says Don Bixby, Executive Director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) in North Carolina. ''Certain animals are selected for higher and higher levels of production, but we select against fitness and self-sustaining characteristics.

''We do that by supporting our livestock with climate control, antibiotics in the feed and the water, growth enhancers, and much more technical husbandry.''

ALBC is the only organization in the United States working to conserve ''heritage'' breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. Some 2,000 members are involved in preserving livestock on the priority ''critical'' list of 30 animals designated by the ALBC.

A critical designation for an animal is defined as ''fewer than 200 North American registrations and an estimated fewer than 2,000 global population.''

For instance, the Florida Cracker cow, like the Gloucestershire Old Spots pig, is on the critical list. The Cracker is descended from Spanish cattle brought to America beginning in the 1500s. When it was crossbred with Brahman cattle it was assumed the resulting vigor was more Brahman than Cracker. The crossbreed became popular and the Cracker faded.

Also on the critical list is the Milking Devon, a breed brought to the New World in the 1600s. It was used for milking, meat, and draft for nearly three centuries.

''But as specialization in agriculture grew in the 20th century,'' Mr. Bixby says, ''animals fell short if they could do more than one thing.''

Over the last few centuries of agribusiness, Bixby says, ''agriculture has segregated genetics into little packages.'' But in order to have a full genetic representation, many breeds have to be preserved.

''If we are going to make changes in agriculture,'' Bixby says, ''... the changes are dependent upon the options we have. Without genetic diversity, we don't have the options.''

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