«The diversity of livestock and crop variety can be considered a
dictionary of sorts, thanks to which it is possible to adequately answer
the needs of the great diversity of territories…».
Two sets of opposing photographs: a striking number of Friesian
cattle on an intensive farm, distributed in circles around milking
machines, contrasts with the image of Grigio Alpina cattle grazing on pastures; a Texan feedlot in which hundreds, if not thousands of beef cattle are confined, and Limpurger cows,
once again grazing fields, with different spaces and types of feed
available. And many more images, videos, as well as a booklet on Animal Biodiversity,
demonstrating that among the different themes explored by Slow Food at
Expo, animal welfare and animal biodiversity could certainly not go
The booklet traces the history of the relationship between human beings and animals, a history with very ancient roots. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated around 15,000 years ago; followed by sheep and goats, due to their size and frugal nature, and finally cattle. The first breeders chose species that would easily reproduce in captivity, have a fast growth rate, large litters and short intervals between births. They chose animals that were less aggressive, instinctively gregarious and privileging herbivorous species as they were easier to feed.
Only few species possessed all these characteristics, in fact out of over 50,000 known wild animal species, only 40 were domesticated, with only 18 of these being mammals. Thousands of different breeds originated from these 40 species, thanks to their adaptability to different environmental conditions and man-made selection, which has always been aimed at developing the most useful characteristics through specific cross-breeding.
Animal breeds are identified on the basis of physical characteristics (size, color of fur or plumage, shape of the head, limbs, horns and tail) and abilities (productivity, in terms of eggs, milk and meat, resistance to cold temperatures, ability to graze in difficult pastures, prolificity, etc.) that adults transmit to their offspring. Breeds are defined as native or local when their characteristics are tied to the climate, geographical and social-economic condition of the area in which they have developed or adapted to over time. Local breeds are able to live in extreme environments, as they require less attention and food, as is the case for the Villsau Sheep, an ancient breed that lives along the icy northern Norwegian coast, on rocky terrain and very poor pastures.
The relationship between humans and animals has been deeply changed by the industrialization of farming, which involves a limited number of high-yield breeds -about 30 in total. This is what the booklet aims to inform on, focusing attention on the ‘big five’: the five most farmed species around the world. For instance, there are currently 1,3 billion cattle on the planet, one for every five humans: 32% are farmed in Asia and 28% in Latin America (Brazil has the highest number of cattle in the world). Out of the 10 main cattle breeds, eight are European and have been exported worldwide. The most commonly farmed breed is the Holstein-Friesian, present in 128 countries and a perfect example to demonstrate how excessive selection can increase the fragility of animals. Friesian cattle were privileged over other breeds, as the unrelenting genetic selection carried out over the years made them able to produce up to 60 liters of milk a day, transforming them into machines forced to live in closed environments, fed with corn and soy-based high protein feed. It is a breed that grows as fast as it ‘burns out’: after three or four births they are no longer able to supply good milk yields and are sent to slaughter, while a traditional cow breed can live up to 20 or 25 years.
The progressive disappearance of traditional breeds has been one of the many effects of industrialization. Currently 7600 animal breeds are used for food (in the production of meat and milk). According to the FAO, 20% of these are at risk of extinction, but these figures may actually be much worse. Europe, along with North America, has one of the highest levels of animal biodiversity depletion: half of the breeds that existed at the beginning of the 20th century are now extinct, and a third of the remaining 770 risk disappearing within the next 20 years (such as the Provençale Goat in France).
Protecting traditional breeds is particularly important for two reasons. First of all it is a matter of quality: for instance, while native dairy cows produce less milk compared to commercial breeds, their milk is often nutritionally richer, containing higher levels of fats and casein, two important elements in the production of high quality cheese, as the products on offer at the Slow Cheese tasting area at Expo demonstrate. Secondly, preserving the genetic heritage of these breeds is useful both to research and the industrial sector, for the selection of the most resistant and tolerant animals.