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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chickens, Genetic Diversity Crisis

We hear a fair bit about biodiversity and the loss of species in the wild but what about the damage we have done to the genetic diversity within domestic species because of our industrial breeding practices?

Everyone knows someone who has had a pure bred dog, horse or some other domestic animal and how their finicky natures, hereditary defects or diseases can lead to great costs and great headaches for owners.

We all know that heavy inbreeding can lead to higher occurrences of deformity and genetic diseases but it can also lead to the loss of genes related to disease resistance, the adaptability to deal with stress, drought, and in some species and breeds, a loss in the ability to birth or mate naturally and even the desire to care for ones offspring.

So what happens when we breed chickens for decades, all within the same blood lines in order to fix specific genetic traits such as being a heavy egg layer or reaching an eating weight in record time?

Well a recent study by Bill Muir of Purdue University, as reported in the New Scientist says we create breeds that have lost up to 90% of their genetic diversity. We have created the millions of damaged, inbred, avian Cletus the slack jawed yokel

This loss of diversity destroys the ability of these breeds to adapt to change, be it climatic or a something like a new wave of avian flu. If a disease should hit a flock it is practically guaranteed that if one bird dies they will all die because they are pretty much genetically identical (not to mention the horrible crowed conditions). The loss of parenting skills and the inability to breed naturally makes these species useless for the non industrial farmer, unless he wants to breed via turkey baster. Many of today's factory farm breeds no longer even have enough instinct left to make a nest, sit on their eggs or to avoid drowning in a water dish.

If we really need to revert back to a low energy agricultural system as promoted by activist/writers like Richard Heinberg, there is going to be a need for livestock that can breed, birth and parent without massive intervention. We will very likely return to small, local, non specialized farming practices and there will be great demand for breeds that are more self sufficient and adaptable

Professor Muir who did this study, is pushing for a reintroduction of genetic diversity into modern flocks but there are also many heritage breeds out there that are in decline which need to be better managed not only to maintain their own diversity but also as possible sources of fresh DNA for commercial flocks.

For those of you who are interested or already have the resources to raise endangered breeds consider supporting Rare Breeds Canada
, your national equivalent or more importantly join one of their breeding programs.Recommend this Post

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