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Faltering farm biodiversity overlooked

The United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, and on May 22, the world celebrated International Biodiversity Day that marked the adoption on the International Convention on Biodiversity in 1992.This recognition of biodiversity’s importance to the planet is timely because around the globe species from all walks of life are disappearing at roughly 1,000 times the natural rate.The term biodiversity, which means variety of life, conjures images of rich natural ecosystems like tropical rainforests and coral reefs. Abundant and endangered ecosystems such as these earned plenty of media attention on Biodiversity Day, and rightly so.But life’s diversity is not confined to the wilderness. Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have painstakingly cultivated an abundant assortment of crops and livestock that have proven their worth over time by providing for our survival. This irreplaceable inheritance is in greater peril than one might think.Over the last half century, modern commercial agriculture has opted to cultivate relatively few breeds and varieties of species in its single-minded pursuit of cost savings and efficiency. For livestock producers, this has meant an emphasis on breeds that meet a narrow range of characteristics such as the animal’s size, growth rate and ability to withstand the crowded conditions found on a typical factory farm. As a result, throughout the world, breeds of farm animals are disappearing at a rate of one per month.Historically, farmers set great store in other qualities when selecting livestock. Breeds that thrived under local climate conditions or on available feed were encouraged, as were those that gave birth with few complications. Chickens that made great layers and broilers were prized rather than one or the other.Likewise, cattle that could be milked for years before they went to slaughter, and hardy livestock naturally resistant to ailments and disease, were also sought.Over centuries, the broad spectrum of characteristics valued by farmers produced an amazing variety within domesticated species. These heritage breeds form a legacy that today is increasingly threatened by extinction. Worldwide, roughly 30 percent are at risk.Meanwhile, intensive livestock operations, which have been expanding since the 1970s and now dominate animal agriculture, increasingly rely on a narrow gene pool of factory farm-adapted breeds that grow fast, produce at a younger age and can survive crowded conditions.The loss of biodiversity among industrial livestock creates problems such as excessive aggression, inability to breed naturally, brittle bones and poor immunity.Reliance on few breeds makes these intensive production systems vulnerable to massive disease outbreaks due to the genetic uniformity of the susceptible animals or birds. Because these operations dominate our food production system, they eliminate farmers who raise biodiverse heritage breeds on a smaller scale and outdoors.The resulting irreversible loss of biodiversity diminishes both our heritage and our options for the future.As factory farms proliferate, traditional farms raising heritage breeds disappear and with them names like Canadienne cow, Barred Rock hen, Tamworth pig and Broad Breasted Bronze turkey may end up consigned to the history books.This phenomenon extends beyond our borders as Canadian farmed exports also compete with and undermine heritage producers abroad.When biodiversity suffers, we all do. We forfeit our heritage along with our prospects and future potential in return for a world where the variety of life and the wealth that springs from it is diminished. But we can easily influence the state of biodiversity here in Canada and around the globe, for better or worse, every time we choose what to eat.It’s food for thought.

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