Livestock Genetics

If you ask someone to think about dogs, he or she will probably consider more than one type: beagles, Labradors, Great Danes, etc. However, if you ask someone to think about pigs, cows, or chickens, it is likely that only a very generic image will come to mind — the white chickens, the pink pigs, the black-and-white patterned cows. But farm animals come in different breeds, too, hundreds of them! So why don’t we ever see them?

Over the course of the past century, as farming has become more and more large scale, we have come to rely on fewer and fewer different breeds of food animals. In the past, the breed of livestock on a farm was the one best-fitted to the climate and needs of the family and community. Now, large commodity farms choose to raise the animal that will produce the most meat in the most cost-effective way. The animals on commodity farms typically have an odd combination of genes and traits that causes them to put on weight in all the right places, and fast. As a result, the types of livestock raised by the million on factory farms are fast replacing traditional breeds — according to Worldwatch Institute, at least 60 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct since 2002 (roughly one breed per month).

So why is this important?

Over time, many  of livestock that are farmed for meat have been genetically manipulated to maximize production, but not the animal’s health. For example, the pigs raised for pork on commodity farms grow large too quickly, and often suffer from joint problems as a result. Similarly, broiler chickens grow breasts so large that they having trouble walking and breathing properly. As a result the farmers have to work extra hard to keep them alive — many of these animals are reliant on hormones, antibiotics, feed-supplements, and other substances. Unfortunately, they are ill-equipped for survival outside the environment of an industrial farm.

Reliance on only a few breeds of animals for such a large portion of our food supply is risky business. It makes both people and animals more vulnerable to disease, famine, and other disasters. If one breed or species of important food animal is wiped out by a disease, it is important that we have other healthy animals for back up!

Traditional breeds of livestock tend to be healthier, hardier, and happier... and many people believe that their meat is much tastier! Companies like Heritage Foods USA have started business programs in which they offer farmers a higher price for meats and products produced from animals of more pure genetic stock. These foods are becoming especially popular among restaurants and chefs for their high quality and unique taste.  Heritage Foods also offers farmers incentives to practice sustainable and humane animal agriculture. By working with Heritage Foods, farmers can more easily transition into operating a profitable farm with healthy animals, healthy land, and delicious food! Check out their website to learn more!
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published this page in Ruminations 2012-07-18 11:57:01 -0400