According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), close to 17 percent of the world’s livestock breeds face extinction. Many of these livestock breeds are indigenous, adapted to local conditions with long agricultural and pastoral traditions. Africa alone is home to more than 150 cataloged breeds of cattle.The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) reports that up to 80 percent of the agricultural GDP in developing countries comes from livestock; 600 million rural poor people are dependent on livestock to feed themselves and their families. Poor farmers often raise indigenous breeds, managing herds both to maintain diversity and to support community livelihoods. This direct human involvement in cultivating agricultural biodiversity is “inherently linked to sustainable use,” according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Such “genetic diversity is a prerequisite for adaptation in the face of future challenges,” says FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. A diverse population of livestock can spread risk across multiple levels. Not only do “local breeds have greater abilities to survive, produce, and maintain reproduction levels in harsh environments,” says Bertrand Dumont, researcher with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, but they tend to be less cost-intensive to raise.
In the face of challenges including climate change, disease, famine, drought, and land degradation, diverse indigenous breeds of livestock could be of great importance for food security, making “food production more resilient,” says Irene Hoffmann, the head of FAO’s Animal Genetic Resources Programme. A more diverse set of genetic material could help farmers and breeders adapt and respond to the ever-changing world around them.
However, the global rise in meat consumption has driven a shift to industrial meat production. In the past 10 years, worldwide meat production has risen by 20 percent. The FAO projects a 3.5 percent global increase in poultry trade in 2016 alone. About 67 percent of that poultry production comes from industrial animal operations or factory farms. And some 42 percent of global pork production is from factory farms.
Farming and pastoral communities, as well as many farmers’ organizations across the globe, are making an effort to promote the conservation and cultivation of indigenous breeds of livestock. The FAO reports an overall uptick in national investment in gene banks and information systems for the preservation of genetic material from livestock. The Livestock Conservancy, based in North Carolina, serves as a network and resource base for farmers and breeders across the nation. And the SVF Foundation, based in Rhode Island, conserves genetic material from rare breeds of livestock and plants.
Veterinarians Without Borders is currently working in Liberia, Uganda, and Ethiopia on programs that educate university students and smallholder farmers on animal husbandry techniques and human health. In sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands, the Turing Foundation offers grants and funding to support sustainable livestock and agricultural practices. Through its focus on holistic systems, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management encourages the use of livestock in land restoration and conservation projects through on-site training and education. In addition, Slow Food International catalogs foods with cultural significance threatened by extinction in its database, Ark of Taste.
In communities all over the world, people are taking steps to conserve livestock. The Samburu Pastoralists of Northern Kenya raise herds of cattle, camels, goats, and sheep, moving from place to place following the patterns of rainfall. This practice can help to build community resistance against drought and celebrates the cultural and practical importance of indigenous livestock breeds. In cross breeding projects with non-indigenous breeds of cattle, Samburu community members found that despite higher yields of milk and meat, the new animals were “more susceptible to drought, disease, and less able to walk long distances…we have little specialist knowledge of these breeds, making us more dependent on inputs and information from outside.”
In the United States, Paul Willis, head of the pork division at Niman Ranch, raises a variety of free-range indigenous pigs in Iowa on a 100-percent vegetarian diet. And companies like Heritage Foods USA and Emmer & Co. connect producers raising heritage livestock and consumers eager to change the way they eat. Both facilitate access to indigenous breeds of livestock through online retail platforms.
Here is a list of 35 indigenous breeds of indigenous livestock that deserve to be protected:
Ankole-Watusi Cattle: Recognizable by their prominent long horns that help to disperse body heat, this breed of cattle is one of many breeds of the Sanga family. Sanga cattle, common throughout East Africa, first spread through the region some 2,000 years ago. The family is mixture of Egyptian Longhorn cattle and Zebu Longhorn cattle, from India. Full-grown Ankole-Watusi bulls can weigh between 1,000 and 1,600 pounds.
Brahma Chicken: The origins of this breed have been long-contested. According to the Livestock Conservancy, Brahma chickens were originally bred in the U.S. from birds imported from China. In 1852, the breeder George Burnham sent a selection of birds to the Queen of England, which sparked a quick rise in popularity and value. The Brahma lay eggs exceptionally well in the wintertime, and come in three colors.
Light Sussex Chicken: This variety of chicken is well known throughout the U.S. and the United Kingdom for being a particularly productive laying hen. Research suggests that Roman invaders may have brought the Sussex variety to England—it now takes its name from the region in southern England. In the 19th century, breeders crossed the Sussex chicken with a Mediterranean breed, creating the Light Sussex Chicken.
Venda Chicken: Originally from Limpopo Province in South Africa, this chicken lays unusually large eggs, typically white, black, and red in color. Skilled scavengers, the birds consume a variable diet, including grass, household scraps, and the occasional small rodent.
Ossabaw Island Hog: Nearly 500 years ago, Spanish Conquistadors left this breed of hog behind on Ossabaw Island, near Savannah, Georgia. Research suggests the hogs may originate in the West Indies—an important stop along trade routes between Europe and the Americas. The breed developed a unique system of fat metabolism that allows it to store a larger proportion of fat rich in Omega-3 fatty acids than any other hog.
Gloucestershire Old Spot Pig: Breeders developed this variety of pig in the 1800s in Gloucestershire, England. Likely a crossbreed of the now-extinct Gloucestershire and Berkshire pigs, black spots cover the white coats of this distinctive breed. These pigs are excellent foragers and grazers and thrive outdoors. The pigs became quite popular the early 20th century for their lean meat. Since World War II, they have fallen into the threatened category as production has restructured towards commercial livestock breeds.
Choctaw Hog: Bred in America, these hogs descend from Spanish stock, but also have a long association with the Choctaw tribe, who kept the hogs through forced migration. The hogs are on the smaller side (about 120 pounds), fast, and athletic. The Livestock Conservancy classifies the Choctaw as critically rare. Population estimates suggest just a few hundred animals.
St. Croix Sheep: St. Croix sheep come from the Virgin Islands, with likely origins in the Caribbean Hair breed family—itself a cross between two varieties brought to the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries. Dr. Warren Foote brought 25 St. Croix sheep to the U.S. from the Virgin Islands in 1975, where breeders have since maintained purebred lines. The breed has high resistance to parasites, high tolerance for heat and humidity, and is well suited to low-input meat production.
American Buff Goose: This goose developed in North America, but its precise history is unclear. It descends from the wild Greylag goose, though research has yet to determine if the breed grew out of a mutation or intentional breeding project. It produces rich, dark meat and large, white eggs.
American Milking Devon Cattle: Not to be confused with Devon or Beef Devon cattle, the American Milking Devon is an extremely rare breed. In 1623, settlers brought the Milking Devon to New England from its home in Devonshire, England. The cattle were soon adopted throughout the colonies—reaching as far as Florida in the 18th and 19thcenturies, and extending west along the Oregon Trail. But, since the late 19th century, the breed began to grow less popular as breeders and farmers sought better beef cattle. Farmers began to distinguish between the Beef Devon and the Milking Devon. A small group set up the American Milking Devon Association, which defends the original colonial breed.
American Plains Bison: Weighing in at about 2,000 pounds, its immense size and the prominent upper back hump set the American Plains Bison apart. Although they nearly went extinct near the end of the 1800s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that today over 200,000 American Plains Bison live in private herds in the U.S.
Buckeye Chicken: This chicken has deep red plumage and thrives in a free-range environment. Developed in Ohio, Buckeye Chicken hens lay medium-sized brown eggs. Mrs. Nettie Metcalf developed the birds in Warren, Ohio, and they are the only bird known to be developed exclusively by a woman.
Bourbon Red Turkey: Named for their home in Bourbon County Kentucky, the Bourbon Red Turkey originated in the late 1800s. The Livestock Conservancy now categorizes the bird as threatened. The turkey produces rich, savory meat. It had a brief popularity as a commercial breed in the 1930s and 1940s, until it fell out of favor, replaced by broad-breasted alternatives.
Cotton Patch Goose: The Cotton Patch Goose was a multi-use bird in the US during the 1900s. Not only did they provide tasty meat and eggs, but farmers also used the birds to weed cornfields and cotton patches—as the name suggests. They were an important source of sustenance for corn and cotton farmers during the Great Depression.
Guinea Hog: This darkly colored breed of pig arrived in the U.S. in conjunction with the slave trade, brought from West Africa and the Canary Islands. Although they were once the most abundant species of pig in the southeastern U.S., the Livestock Conservancy now considers them threatened. The small guinea hog weighs a light 100 to 300 pounds.
Gulf Coast Sheep: In the 1500s, settlers brought this breed of sheep to the New World. The animals were an important source of wool and meat for household use in the Deep South. The Gulf Coast Sheep exhibits strong resistance to parasites—the Livestock Conservancy points to the rise of antibiotics and more productive sheep breeds as a primary threat to the livelihood of this breed. The SVF Foundation categorizes Gulf Coast Sheep as in critical condition.
Texas Longhorn Cattle: Spanish settlers brought these cattle with them as they established missions in the southwestern U.S. Settlers utilized this iconic breed of cattle for their meat, labor, tallow, and hides. Recent research from the University of Texas suggests the cows brought from Spain are related to breeds from the Middle East and India.
Karakul Sheep: This breed of sheep originates from Central Asia. The breed is named after the high-altitude village of Karakul, where water and food are scarce. The breed is celebrated for the value of its lambs’ pelts, often turned into lambskins, and the high-quality wool that can be produced from the coats of mature animals.
Kolbroek Pigs: Though the exact origins of this breed of pig remain unclear, they have lived in South Africa for several decades, where they are considered indigenous. Kolbroek pigs are good foragers, excellent swimmers, and produce exceptional quantities of fat.
Molo Mushunu Chicken: This chicken comes from the Molo district located in the Kenyan part of the Rift Valley, traditionally raised by the Kikuyu people. They are well behaved and appreciated for their delicious meat and eggs. These birds have a strange appearance: their long bodies extend into a featherless head and neck.
Navajo-Churro Sheep: The Navajo-Churro sheep was first brought to the southwestern U.S. by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The breed is widely regarded as the first domesticated sheep in the New World. The animals are highly adaptable and used for its quality wool. Through trading and conflict, the Navajo people adopted the Churro sheep, whose wool they used for weaving. Current efforts by the Navajo Sheep Project to revitalize the breed have been successful.
N’Dama Cattle: This breed originates from the Fouta-Djallon highlands of Guinea. Their meat is flavorful and low in fat content. The breed demonstrates exceptional heat and humidity tolerance. In West Africa, there are approximately 7 million N’Dama cattle to date.
Nguni Cattle: Nguni cattle thrive in southern Africa, where they have long played a key role for communal farmers. The FAO reports that few pure bred animals remain—many were mixed with commercial breeds in the 20th century. Rural farming communities have been largely responsible for the continuation of the Nguni cattle.
Plymouth Rock Chicken: The Plymouth Rock chicken is the quintessential American breed: a crossbreed of Dominiques and Black Javas developed in the mid-19th century, the birds come from the Boston area, though their precise origin remains unclear. Plymouth Rock chickens are dual-purpose, meaning farmers raise them for meat and for eggs.
Red Maasai Sheep: Indigenous to West Africa, Maasai pastoralists in Kenya and Tanzania are the predominant shepherds of the Red Maasai sheep. The sheep are particularly resistant to worms and other diseases.
Randall Lineback Cattle: The exact origins are unclear, but research suggests Randall Lineback cattle are a mixture of Dutch, English, and French varieties. The breed was once quite prevalent in the northeastern portion of the U.S., but much of the population disappeared in the 20th century as farmers and breeders crossed the animals with Holsteins. The Randall family in Vermont had maintained a line purebred of Lineback cattle for 80 years—only a small portion of that herd remains today.
Rhode Island Red Chicken, Old-Type: Another iconic American chicken, the Rhode Island Red is reddish brown in color. The hens lay 200 to 300 eggs per year. The bird was developed in New England, bred to be dual-purpose. Hens lay large round eggs and are a common table bird.
Royal Palm Turkey: These turkeys are white and black with a red or bluish head. Males weigh around 16 pounds, while the females weigh on average 10 pounds. The Livestock Conservancy classifies the Royal Palm threatened. Fewer than 1,000 breeding birds remain in the U.S.
Tennessee Fainting Goat: These goats don’t faint with any regularity, but the breed suffers from myotonia congenita, a condition that causes the muscles to contract when the goat is startled, sometimes making them fall over. Because of this condition, these goats have little body fat, which results in a mild meat.
American Rabbit: These rabbits were developed in California, and reside exclusively in North America. Until the 1950s these rabbits were abundant, hunted for their meat and fur. Now the American Rabbit is the rarest rabbit breed in America. The Livestock Conservancy classifies the rabbit as in critical condition.
Silver Fox Rabbit: Ohio breeder Walter B. Garland developed the Silver Fox for its high-quality meat and fur, which is silver in color. The rabbits are large—ranging from 10 to 12 pounds. The Silver Fox Rabbit is currently threatened in the U.S.
Wyandotte Chicken: Developed in New York in the 1800s, breeders named the Wyandotte Chicken after a regional Native American tribe. The heavy-set birds are poor fliers. In 2016, the bird moved off of the Livestock Conservancy’s priority list. It is now classified as a recovering breed.
Sebright Chicken (Gold and Silver): These birds are primarily ornamental birds. The feathers of both the gold and silver varieties are laced in black. Sebright chickens are good layers, providing small, white eggs. They are one of the most popular bantam breeds. The birds take the name of their breeder, John Sebright.
Dutch Gold Chicken: With origins the Netherlands, the Dutch Gold is also a bantam breed. The birds likely arrived in the Netherlands via trade routes to the Dutch East Indies. The hens lay a lot of small eggs—a trait thought to have been developed by farmers as a strategy to avoid the demands of Dutch landlords that all large eggs be given up as rent.
Zulu Sheep: This breed’s history dates back to 200 A.D. when they traveled with the Nguni people from North and Central Africa to the eastern coast of South Africa. Unfortunately, the Zulu are now an endangered species, but the Enaleni Farm in South Africa raises the sheep.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank, foodtank.com)