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Even farm animal diversity is waning, experts say

May 28, 2013
Courtesy of IPBES
and World Science staff

The ac­cel­er­at­ing dis­ap­pear­ance of Earth’s spe­cies con­sti­tutes a threat to mankind’s well-be­ing and even sur­viv­al, warns the found­ing chair of a ma­jor new con­serva­t­ion group.

Di­vers­ity is de­creas­ing even among farm an­i­mals, said Za­kri Ab­dul Hamid, chair of the group mod­eled on the In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change. The new In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Science-Policy Plat­form on Bio­di­vers­ity and Ec­o­sys­tem Ser­vic­es (IPBES) was cre­at­ed to nar­row the gulf be­tween lead­ing in­terna­t­ional bio­di­vers­ity sci­en­tists and na­t­ional pol­i­cy-makers.

Hamid, in Nor­way May 27 to ad­dress 450 in­terna­t­ional of­fi­cials with gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­bil­i­ties re­lat­ed to bio­di­vers­ity and eco­nom­ic plan­ning, gave his first pub­lic re­marks since be­ing elected in Jan­u­ary.

Za­kri, a Malaysian na­t­ional who co-chaired 2005’s land­mark Mil­len­ni­um Ec­o­sys­tem As­sess­ment and serves al­so as sci­ence ad­vi­sor to his coun­try’s prime min­is­ter, cit­ed 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.”

The grad­u­al de­struc­tion of Am­a­zon rain­for­est, for ex­am­ple, “may seem small with short­sighted per­spec­tive” but will eventually “ac­cu­mu­late to cause a larg­er, more im­por­tant change,” he said. Cli­mate change, com­bined with land use change and fires, “could cause much of the Am­a­zon for­est to trans­form ab­ruptly to more open, dry-a­dapted ecosys­tems, threat­en­ing the re­gion’s enor­mous bio­di­vers­ity and price­less ser­vic­es,” he added.

“A cred­i­ble, per­ma­nent IPCC-like sci­ence pol­i­cy plat­form for bio­di­vers­ity and ec­o­sys­tem ser­vic­es is an im­por­tant but mis­sing el­e­ment in the in­terna­t­ional re­sponse to the bio­di­vers­ity cri­sis,” Za­kri told the gath­er­ing, the 7th Trond­heim Con­fer­ence on Bio­di­vers­ity.

Some sci­en­tists have termed this the “sixth great ex­tinc­tion episode” in Earth’s his­to­ry, not­ed Za­kri, adding the bio­di­vers­ity loss is hap­pen­ing faster and eve­ry­where, even among farm an­i­mals. He un­der­lined find­ings by the UN Food and Ag­ri­cul­ture Or­gan­iz­a­tion that ge­net­ic di­vers­ity among live­stock is de­clin­ing.

“The good news is the rate of de­cline is drop­ping but the lat­est da­ta clas­si­fy 22 per­cent of do­mes­ti­cat­ed breeds at risk of ex­tinc­tion,” Za­kri said.

Breeds be­come rare be­cause their char­ac­ter­is­tics ei­ther don’t suit con­tem­po­rary de­mand or be­cause dif­fer­ences in their qual­i­ties have not been rec­og­nized. When a breed popula­t­ion falls to about 1,000 an­i­mals, it is con­sid­ered rare and en­dan­gered. Causes of ge­net­ic ero­sion in do­mes­tic an­i­mals, ac­cord­ing to the group, 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 in­dus­t­ri­al­ized coun­tries, and product-focused se­lec­tion.

Among crops, mean­while, about 75 per­cent of ge­net­ic di­vers­ity was lost in the last cen­tu­ry as farm­ers world­wide switched to ge­net­ic­ally un­iform, high-yielding va­ri­eties and aban­doned lo­cal va­ri­eties, ac­cord­ing to the or­gan­iz­a­tion. There are 30,000 ed­i­ble plant spe­cies but only 30 crops ac­count for 95 per­cent of hu­man food en­er­gy, 60 per­cent of which comes down to rice, wheat, maize, mil­let and sor­ghum.

“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.


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The accelerating disappearance of Earth’s species constitutes a threat to mankind’s well-being and even survival, warns the founding chair of a major new conservation group. Diversity is decreasing even among farm animals, said Zakri Abdul Hamid, chair of the group modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The new Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was created to narrow the gulf between leading international biodiversity scientists and national policy-makers. Hamid, in Norway May 27 to address 450 international officials with government responsibilities related to biodiversity and economic planning, gave his first public remarks since being elected in January. Zakri, a Malaysian national who co-chaired 2005’s landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and serves also as science advisor to his country’s prime minister, cited 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.” The gradual destruction of Amazon rainforest, for example, “may seem small with shortsighted perspective” but will eventually “accumulate to cause a larger, more important change,” he said. Climate change, combined with land use change and fires, “could cause much of the Amazon forest to transform abruptly to more open, dry-adapted ecosystems, threatening the region’s enormous biodiversity and priceless services,” he added. “A credible, permanent IPCC-like science policy platform for biodiversity and ecosystem services is an important but missing element in the international response to the biodiversity crisis,” Zakri told the gathering, the 7th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity. Some scientists have termed this the “sixth great extinction episode” in Earth’s history, noted Zakri, adding the biodiversity loss is happening faster and everywhere, even among farm animals. He underlined findings by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that genetic diversity among livestock is declining. “The good news is the rate of decline is dropping but the latest data classify 22% of domesticated breeds at risk of extinction,” Zakri said. 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, according to the group, 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 industrialized countries, and product-focused selection. Among crops, meanwhile, about 75 percent of genetic diversity was lost in the last century as farmers worldwide switched to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and abandoned local varieties, according to the organization. There are 30,000 edible plant species but only 30 crops account for 95% of human food energy, 60% of which comes down to rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum. “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.