flock of sheep

International Day for Biodiversity: Why must we preserve local animal breeds? 

As we celebrate the UN'International Day for Biological Diversity, let’s remind ourselves of the critical role genetic diversity plays in addressing future environmental challenges and why it is essential to preserve it against one of its major threats, intensive animal farming. 


According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), approximately 26% of farmed animals breeds globally are classified as at risk of extinction, a figure likely underestimated due to insufficient data on a large number of breeds. The EU, in particular, faces a high proportion of breeds at risk, with around 53% of them endangered. This alarming trend led the European Commission to address this decline in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, calling for a facilitation of the use of traditional breeds to help reverse ecosystem degradation. Further, as part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU has made subsidies available to support farmers in the preservation of local breeds. 

But this hasn’t been enough. 

In recent decades, the global rise in demand for animal products has dramatically transformed farmed animal production. This shift towards higher numbers of animals in intensive farming systems has lowered animal welfare standards and led to the marginalisation of traditional production practices, which often work with nature. Local breeds, which historically fostered genetic diversity, are being replaced by a limited number of highly productive transboundary breeds under intensive conditions with little to no access to the natural environment. This transition is detrimental to genetic diversity because the high-yield breeds are often crossbred with the local ones to enhance farm productivity, resulting in a dilution of the unique genetic heritage of local farmed animals and the decline of global animal genetic resources.  

With this genetic selection comes many animal health and welfare issues such as metabolic, musculoskeletal, skin and behavioural disorders or infectious diseases due to lower immunity. This results in an industry dependant on antimicrobials to compensate for chronic health issues from these non-resilient animals. For example, some fast-growing chicken crossbreeds develop legs too weak to support their own weight leading to suffering and high mortality. 

Unfortunately, this trend is expected to continue in the future with the expansion of large-scale intensive farming, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where genetic diversity has been historically strong due to the prevalence of small-scale farmers and pastoral production systems. 

Broiler chickens laying down inside a factory farm in Italy.

Broiler chickens laying down inside a factory farm in Italy. As the weeks pass it becomes more difficult to stand up and walk due to rapid growth.

Here are 4 reasons why we must preserve traditional breeds and their genetic diversity: 

Resilience to the climate crisis: Local breeds present an extraordinary resilience and adaptation to their specific environments, making them vital in the face of the climate crisis. These breeds, often used in extensive farming systems like pastoralism, are naturally adapted to regional food resources and environmental conditions. As the climate crisis threatens the sustainability of many animal farming practices, the resilience of these breeds to warmer and drier conditions becomes indispensable. They are better suited to ensure the sustainability of local livestock production and of the communities that depend on it. For instance, the Irish Dexter cattle is particularly adapted to thrive in the mountains of Ireland due to its small size and capacity to withstand extreme climatic conditions. Furthermore, its grazing habits promote local meadows conservation.

Agricultural sustainability: Locally adapted breeds are less reliant on external inputs such as industrial feed and veterinary treatments contributing to a self-sufficient farming system. Additionally, these extensive systems often involve low stocking density and natural grazing practices resulting in less environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions compared to intensive systems that are heavily reliant on synthetic fertiliser to produce feed.

Ecosystem services: Traditional breeds that are well-suited to local landscapes and raised in low density adapted to the carrying capacity of regional soils contribute to maintaining soil health and biodiversity in natural habitats. For example, the Iberian pig, native to the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, is uniquely adapted to the dehesa, an agroforestry ecosystem characterised by a combination of pastureland and oak trees. This local breed has evolved to make the most of the acorns that fall from the oak trees which are a crucial part of their diet. Moreover, by foraging, the Iberian pig contributes to the seed dispersal and reduction of the risk of wildfires particularly threatening in this region.

Zoonotic disease prevention: The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has highlighted that rising meat demand and globalised food trade increase pandemic risks through biodiversity loss. Particularly because intensive animal farming is expanding into wildlife habitats, more contact between humans and wild animals is taking place, increasing the risk of zoonotic spillover. Under natural outdoor conditions with a lower stocking density, a more virulent pathogen would be less transmissible compared to the cramped and unhygienic conditions found in intensive farming systems.

Piglets crowed in a cage on a pig farm in Italy

Piglets crowd one another in filth in an Italian factory farm. Many farms have had to cull their pigs due to African Swine fever propagation.

Safeguarding traditional breeds, ensuring they are kept in excellent welfare conditions, and protecting their associated genetic heritage is a powerful tool to face today’s triple planetary crisis. On this International Day for Biological Diversity, it is essential to recognise the numerous benefits of preserving these breeds and the urgent need to commit to actions at EU level, and globally, to protect and promote extensive and traditional farming systems with excellent animal welfare to ensure the preservation of our natural environment and a sustainable future for our agricultural systems. 

Marc Antoine Malacquis

Marc-Antoine Malacquis

Farm Animals and Nutrition Intern



Share now!