An ecosystem in crisis

The rise of factory farming over the last half-century has resulted in a crisis for family farms. Factory farming benefits from the economy of scale, producing much, much more of whatever their product is - milk, beef, pork, whatever - at costs per unit that are far lower than a family farm can achieve. This allows the factory farms to sell their products cheaper than the family farmer can, driving the small farms out of business.

Over the past decade or two, the decline of the family farm has received a fair amount of attention, mostly focused on the people who are affected, but there's more to the story than you might think. The decline of the family farm has done more than threaten a way of life. It's also created a biodiversity crisis, in an area that normally escapes attention.

Don Schrider, of the American Livestock Breeds Conservency, described the extent of the crisis to me during a recent phone conversation. "What we're seeing is the loss of an ecosystem," Schrider explained, "and that ecosystem is the small farm." That was certainly a new way of looking at things for me, but as he continued to explain what was going on, it made more and more sense.

The small, diversified family farm operation has different needs than a factory farm, and the selection of animals reflects just that. A factory farm that focuses exclusively on milk production only uses breeds of cow that are good milkers. A factory that focuses on beef production wants cows that are very good at turning feed into decent-tasting beef. A small, diversified farm can't afford to do either - those farmers need cows that are good at both.

One such breed of cow is the American Milking Devon. Devons were the first cows introduced to Plymouth Colony, arriving in 1623, and for centuries were considered to be fantastic animals to have on the farm, because they were good milkers, good for beef, and made excellent oxen. The need for oxen disappeared with the rise of the tractor, and the Milking Devons are not good animals for factory farming, since they are not as good at milk production as the Holstein or the Jersey, and not as good at beef production as the Black Angus. As a result, their numbers have plummeted, to the point where the breed registry only contains about 600 animals at any time.

The same situation comes into play with most of the other domestic species. Factory farming, whatever the organism involved, favors the selection of different breeds than small-scale family farming. Factory pigs, for example, are usually kept tightly confined in crates. Small farm pigs were kept outdoors, where they could be used to root up the weeds from garden areas during the winter, while simultaneously providing fertilizer. Similar things come into play with chicken, turkey, sheep, and other domesticated livestock.

Diversified, small-scale farming has declined so much that many breeds that were once important have now declined to the point where they are near extinction. The American Livestock Breeds Conservency maintains a list of threatened domestic breeds, using strict standards to define the degree of threat for different breeds. As of right now, they have over 150 species listed as being threatened to some degree.

The existance of threatened breeds of domestic animals raises some interesting ethical and philosophical questions. The most obvious, of course, is whether breeds created by humans should be treated the same way as natural populations of threatened animals. After all, as Bill Cosby so famously put it, "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!" Does the fact that humans created these breeds make it more or less important that we protect them - or is it entirely irrelevant?

Actually, no matter what the answer to the abstract question, there are pragmatic reasons for protecting these breeds. Genetic diversity is important. There have been quite a few studies that have linked low levels of genetic diversity to all sorts of problems. Domestic animals, having been subjected to heavy artificial selection, tend to have low genetic diversity to start with, and this problem has actually gotten worse with the factory-farmed breeds.

Let's look at Holstein cows as one example. Most modern farms do not keep bulls, relying instead on artificial insemination to impregnate their cows. This makes sense from the farmer's perspective. Keeping a bull around is an expensive proposition, particularly since they actually do very little work. Bulls are also large and occasionally tempermental animals, which means that there's a distinct element of risk in having one wandering around. This has lead to the development of companies that specialize in providing the sperm for AI. Those companies only stock limited numbers of lines, and have little incentive to keep lines that aren't selling well. This, in turn, means that there are relatively few males active in the Holstein population. (According to the Holstein Association, USA's website, five bulls fathered a total of 655 cows born in the last two weeks.) According to the ALBC's Don Schrider, a genetic disorder shared by approximately 10% of American Holsteins can be traced back to a single bull. Genetic diversity in Holsteins is, to put it mildly, low.

The genetic diversity within the more generalized, small-farm breeds can be a bit higher, but that's not their only contribution. Keeping more breeds around keeps the diversity of the species higher, and that's always a good idea. Immune function can vary in different breeds, and some breeds may be more at risk to disease than others. A 2004 study bears this out - several strains of "heritage turkeys" suffered far less mortality than a factory strain when exposed to a virus.

All of this points to a conclusion that I hadn't previously thought of - conservation efforts shouldn't be restricted to species found in the wild. There are good reasons to work to preserve domestic breeds of livestock, too. The best way to do this, according to Schrider, is to encourage small-scale, diversified farming in a much bigger way. Sustainable and organic farming create environments that encourage the use of the more generalized livestock breeds. Remember that the next time you go shopping - organic foods, it seems, benefit the environment in more ways than you might expect.


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By Jeff Matzke (not verified) on 28 Jun 2006 #permalink

Wasn't the whole Irish potato blight preventable by using more than one species? It seems to me that there are a couple hundred species of potatos. Three or four are available at the local grocery store. I don't always buy the same kind.

One could talk about short term gains vs. long term sustainability. For example, a lumber company might decide to stop planting trees for fifty years, to boost their stock price. In 50 years, it's someone else's problem. Most industries face these trade offs.