Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Another reason to save rare breed livestock--and a little bit more

As I was re reading the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) newsletter (sept/oct 2007) that I recently received, I noticed an article that I must have missed the first time through. It's a small article and titled "Skimmed Milk Cows" and is about some cows being bred in New Zealand that produce skim milk versus "regular" milk. Hmm...
After I read that decided I wanted to know more about this subject. So with just a small bit of searching I found a good expanded article here.

Well, this doesn't look good at all does it? Oh, I am not talking from the perspective of "tampering" with animals to produce specialty products (the white bread syndrome as I always think of it) but two other things that concern me.
One, that I had not thought of, is out of the article in the ALBC.
The author (Mwai Okeyo of the International Livestock Research Institute) says this:
This debate (one breeding specialty cattle) emphasizes the importance of the very old principle: that is the need to set realistic breeding objectives, depending on the production systems and the target market and consumers. Breeding objectives for low-input, poverty reduction systems should there-fore differ from those meant for high input systems and more affluent consumers.
In many developing countries, daily protein intake per person, especially of animal origin, is too low. For such consumers, high milk-fat content and intake is not a negative concern. Good quality water is often not available for the people and their animals, so a cow that converts water into watery milk is not a desirable goal. Yet that is what the multinational dairy cattle genetics companies are aggressively promoting. In such places it would be more desirable to have animals that can produce less milk with more fat and protein form poorer quality forage and less water. Such animals do exist but which donor/investor wants to put resources in such animal today (added by me: when everyone "with money" really wants skimmed/low fat products)?
At the same time, the type of consumers who do not desire butterfat in their milk can afford the additional higher prices that come with skimmed milk. Ironically, it is not just milk fat that is bad for health, but a combination of diet, exercise and social habits. Smoking may be far worse than milk fat, but no sensible tobacco breeders aims to reduce the nicotine content of the tobacco leaves!
As animal geneticists and breeders, we still have huge and real gaps to fill despite great successes in many areas. I would rather we concentrated our genetic improvement efforts to areas where we can really make meaningful changes to many lives, rather than to those that are targeted at the special few.

The author then goes on to talk about the World Food Programs, "who find it cheap and convenient" to ship/airlift maize-beans mixes grown in the USA to famine stricken part of Africa while other parts of the same country have fresh produce (potatoes, fruits etc) rotting for lack of an infrastructure to process, package and ship these products hundreds of miles only. If these world food programs and world bank etc would help develop these infrastructure how much better it could and would be for so many people. Many people could and would then also make a decent living while they shipped food to places that had less and needed it more.

My last comment on this issue is from the science article listed above ( placed here for convenience). In this article they comment that the gene that allows the cow to produce only 1% butterfat versus 3-4 percent is a dominant trait. Now that is a scary thought since when these large companies begin making money with this it won't take long for a dominant gene such as that to spread very far and wide until most of the production cows would be this way. Not to sound like a pessimist---but that is exactly the type of thing that has occurred over and over again. Just one more reason to raise a "rare" breed of farm animal to save those recessive traits that we may find ourselves without in some future generation.

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