The phrase “endangered species” is not unfamiliar to most of us. We’re constantly hearing about all sorts of animals in danger of being extinct because they are in such high demand that they are being hunted and killed by the hundreds. This issue is constantly highlighted in the news and all sorts of other media, why even here at FriendsEAT we bring it up once in a while. What we don’t often hear about, however, is the issue of animals being in extinct because of the opposite reason – that they are no longer in demand.
While the typical endangered species are wild animals that are being hunted in their natural habitat, most of our food are actually raised by farmers throughout the world. They have raised thousands of different animal breeds and plant varieties through time, but as they started to favor a few specialized types of livestock and crops, thousands of non-commercial animal breeds and crop varieties have disappeared, along with the valuable genetic diversity they possessed.
The diverse kinds of animals and plants also have an advantage – each variety is genetically unique and is resistant to the diseases and pests with which it evolved. In fact, old varieties are used to provide resistance to modern crops to rapidly evolving diseases and pests. Without genetic diversity, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations.
Fortunately, Sustainable Table happily reports, a growing number of sustainable farmers are preserving agricultural variety and protecting biodiversity by raising “heritage” or “heirloom” animal breeds and crops. Heritage and heirloom actually pertain to the same thing, just that “heritage” usually refers to animals while “heirloom” generally describes plants. These terms describe varieties of animals and crops that have unique genetic traits, were grown or raised many years ago, and are typically produced in a sustainable manner.
Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that were raised by farmers in the past, before industrial agriculture came into the picture and drastically reduced breed variety. Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are some 1,500 others that we may want to start referring to as “endangered species.”
In the US, a few main breeds dominate the livestock industry: Here are some interesting statistics:
- 83% of dairy cows are Holsteins, and five main breeds comprise almost all of the dairy herds in the US.
- 60% of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds.
- 75% of pigs in the US come from only 3 main breeds.
- Over 60% of sheep come from only four breeds, and 40 percent are Suffolk-breed sheep.
These breeds are favored by farmers because they are bred to produce lots of milk or eggs, gain weight quickly, or yield particular types of meat within confined facilities. Meanwhile, heritage animals were bred over time to develop traits that made them particularly well-adapted to local environmental conditions. They are generally better adapted to withstand disease and survive in harsh environmental conditions, and their bodies can be better suited to living on pasture. They are well-suited to sustainable farms since they are able to survive without the temperature-controlled buildings and constant doses of antibiotics administered to the commercial breeds raised on factory farms.
These livestock breeds also serve as an important genetic resource, and when heritage breeds become extinct, their unique genes are lost forever and can’t be used to breed new traits into existing livestock breeds. By raising heritage livestock breeds, farmers not only maintain variety within our livestock populations, they also help to preserve valuable traits within the species so that future breeds can endure harsh conditions.
Heirloom plants, meanwhile, are any garden plants that have a history of being passed down within a family. While there is some contention as to how old a plant is before it can be considered an heirloom, with some saying that they have to be at least 50 to 100 years old, all agree that heirloom fruits and vegetables are unique plant varieties which are genetically distinct from the commercial varieties popularized by industrial agriculture.
Farmers who grow heirloom fruits and vegetables help to preserve genetic diversity by ensuring that these unique plant varieties are not completely replaced by the few commercial varieties that are mass-produced by industrial agriculture. They also preserve delicious, unique and interesting kinds of fruits, vegetables and grains that add color and flavor to meals that everyone can enjoy. Heirloom produce and heritage meat have superior taste and quality.
They are pricier, though, because of smaller yields and limited seasons. And since few farmers produce them, they need to be shipped to the people who want them, and the freight charges add to the cost. It’s kind of funny, though, how it’s more expensive to dine on food that is grown the way nature intended.
We suggest trying out these stuff before some other kind of revolution comes out again and they are truly gone for good.