We all think we know what we mean by “biodiversity”. The UN Convention on Biodiversity defines it as the “variability among living organisms from all sources” and divides it into three different elements: the diversity within species, the diversity between species and the diversity of ecosystems.
Importantly, there is nothing in any of this that limits biodiversity to what is found in the wild; it covers all living things, including what is kept for agricultural purposes.
The signatories to the Convention refer to this farmed biodiversity as “agricultural biodiversity” or agro biodiversity. At COP 5 in 1992 it was defined as:
“…all components of biological diversity of relevance to food and agriculture, and all components of biological diversity that constitute the agro-ecosystem: the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms, at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels, which are necessary to sustain key functions of the agro-ecosystem, its structure and processes”.
So, our obligation to conserve biodiversity includes livestock and crops alongside their wild counterparts. The Sustainable Development Goals reinforce the point. Under SDG 2.5 signatories are expected to:
“…maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals”
Unfortunately, though, at least so far as livestock are concerned, we are falling short of meeting these targets. As the JNCC stated last March in its 6th National Report to the Biodiversity Convention:
"Despite significant progress implementing strategies for the conservation of genetic resources, particularly for ex-situ seed conservation, progress is assessed as insufficient in recognition of published declines in the effective population size of some native animal breeds”.
So how do we secure the conservation of our native breeds? Firstly, by recognising that livestock were bred to provide us with particular benefits in particular locations; they are the ultimate ecosystem service providers, giving us provisioning, regulating and cultural services. Secondly, by appreciating the full range and extent of the powers available in the Agriculture Bill.
In the main, livestock provide us with goods: food and clothing. Promoting the economic benefits resulting from the diversity found in native breeds, coupled with appropriate training in keeping them, could secure a significant increase in numbers. Kept at the right density in the right place, native breeds can thrive without expensive feed, thereby increasing profitability compared with the higher inputs generally required for larger commercial breeds.
Moreover, because many native breeds are commonly associated with a specific location, with some savvy marketing they can have a major role to play in enhancing local brands and contributing to the local rural economy. And, because consumer choices are increasingly influenced by environmental and welfare concerns, we should be highlighting that these are features especially associated with native breeds.
Something else government should do is ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place, in particular the sector desperately needs a comprehensive network of local abattoirs capable of processing nonstandard animals in small numbers.
Governments are well used to supporting farm businesses in all these ways, with assistance in business development, marketing, and infrastructure provision; but with an additional focus on native breeds they can deliver significant conservation benefits too.
Next there are the regulating services native breeds provide. Our native breeds play an important role in the development and maintenance of natural habitats and increasing biodiversity. Bred for our landscape, native-breed cattle helped create the pastures and meadows we now cherish; native pigs can be used in woodland management to increase biodiversity and play a key role in arable rotations. We need incentives to encourage farmers and other land managers to use them in preference to larger commercial breeds.
Then there is the cultural side; native breeds are part of our national identity and heritage. White Park cattle, featured in the Rare Breeds Survival Trust logo, were brought to Britain when it was still joined to the European mainland – well before Stonehenge was built. The Large White pig is the cornerstone of pig breeding across the world. We expect Government to help promote and conserve our built heritage, why not our livestock heritage too?
Finally, we should not think just about what we get from livestock. We also need to think about what we give them in return, this means doing all we can to ensure they have a good life and a stress-free death. And that requires both exceptionally high welfare standards and stringent controls on imports.
Over the coming weeks, Rare Breeds Survival Trust will publish a series of “Rare Breed Briefings” setting out what Government and farmers, working together, can do to conserve our native breeds. If you are interested, see https://www.rbst.org.uk/.
Christopher Price, CEO, Rare Breeds Survival Trust
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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