Even Farm Animal Genetic Diversity Is Plummeting — Loss Of Genetic Diversity Amongst Wild And Domesticated Species Is A Slow-Moving Disaster

Along with the rapid disappearance of much of the world’s wild biodiversity over the past century, the diversity of domesticated plant and animal species has also been falling rapidly. This loss of species diversity and genetic diversity poses a serious threat to continuation of modern industrial agriculture, and perhaps much more importantly, to the free “services” that the world currently provides us — clean water, clean air, food, forestry products, a livable temperate climate, etc.

Image Credits: Hopetoun Falls via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credits: Hopetoun Falls via Wikimedia Commons

This loss of genetic diversity makes species, and also domesticated breeds/types, more and more susceptible to disease and environmental change, and less adaptable to changing circumstances. It’s currently estimated that about 75% of all the genetic diversity that was previously present amongst human-grown-crops was lost during the last century “as farmers worldwide switched to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and abandoned multiple local varieties.” These (now lost) indigenous varieties were generally not only very well-suited to their climates, soils, local diseases, etc, but also possessed a resiliency to the extremes present in their environments — a resiliency simply not present in the genetically uniform/high-crop-yields-at-all-costs varieties of today, which are typically dependent upon industrial infrastructure for their viability.

This widespread loss of biodiversity will have profound effects on the world in the coming years. According to the founding Chair of a new global organization created to narrow the gulf between leading international biodiversity scientists and national policy-makers, Zakri Abdul Hamid, this loss “threatens” the continued existence of modern civilization.

“In Norway to address an elite gathering of 450 international officials with government responsibilities in the fields of biodiversity and economic planning, Zakri Abdul Hamid offered his first public remarks since being elected in January to head the new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) — an independent body modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

“Dr. Zakri, a national of Malaysia who co-chaired 2005’s landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and serves also as science advisor to his country’s prime minister, cited fast-growing evidence that ‘we are hurtling towards irreversible environmental tipping points that, once passed, would reduce the ability of ecosystems to provide essential goods and services to humankind.'”

He cited the potential loss of the Amazon rainforest as an example, saying that it “may seem small with shortsighted perspective” but that it will eventually “accumulate to cause a larger, more important change.” It’s been warned that with the combination of climate change and the continued large-scale deforestation of the region that “much of the Amazon forest may transform abruptly to more open, dry-adapted ecosystems, threatening the region’s enormous biodiversity and priceless services.” Services such as rainfall, rivers/lakes, a temperate climate, and many food sources.

The extremely-fast loss of biodiversity and high rate of extinction that the world is currently experiencing has been dubbed by many researchers as ” the sixth great mass extinction event” — an event perhaps unprecedented in the Earth’s history. Dr. Zakri notes that this loss of biodiversity is speeding up, even amongst farm animals — “the latest data classify 22% of domesticated breeds at risk of extinction.’

The IPBES continues:

Breeds become rare because their characteristics either don’t suit contemporary demand or because differences in their qualities have not been recognised. When a breed population falls to about 1,000 animals, it is considered rare and endangered.

Causes of genetic erosion in domestic animals are the lack of appreciation of the value of indigenous breeds and their importance in niche adaptation, incentives to introduce exotic and more uniform breeds from industrialised countries, and product-focused selection.

“The decline in the diversity of crops and animals is occurring in tandem with the need to sharply increase world food production and as a changing environment makes it more important than ever to have a large genetic pool to enable organisms to withstand and adapt to new conditions,” Zakri said.

For further reading, I recommend: Deforestation Effects, Causes, And Examples, Increasing Loss of Biodiversity Comparable to Global Warming in Ecosystem Damage It Will Cause, and Biodiversity: A Metaguide.

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