A new FAO, Rome, Italy study argues that women livestock keepers worldwide must be recognized as the major actors in efforts to arrest the decline of indigenous breeds, which are crucial for rural food security and animal genetics.
Indigenous breeds are adapted to often harsh local conditions, are disease resistant, thrive on easy to obtain local fodder or forage and generally take care of them. Such breeds may not produce a lot of meat, milk or eggs but they are low maintenance for run-off-their-feet poor rural women. Such breeds are also a repository of irreplaceable genetic material. They often have traits such as disease-resistance that are important for breeding programs. In a world threatened by climate change, breeds that are resistant to drought, extreme heat or tropical diseases are of major potential importance.
Problems arise when projects or national authorities try to introduce exotic breeds or cross-breeds to try to increase production of meat, milk, and eggs. These animals need special and often expensive feed, wait to be fed rather than foraging on their own, need expensive veterinary care, and cannot survive prolonged drought or other extreme weather. Poor rural livestock keepers, women, in particular, are often unable to spare the time needed to raise these animals successfully. Where breed introductions and production intensification succeed and livestock become an important source of cash income, women often lose their role as livestock keepers.
The advantages of indigenous breeds have been long known. But the FAO study asserts that the role of women in safeguarding indigenous breeds and improving their genetics through careful breeding has not been appreciated. Note: 22 percent of world livestock breeds are still at risk of extinction.
Countries are beginning to put programs into place to reverse the alarming decline in the numbers of indigenous livestock breeds. In India, the highest milk yield indigenous cattle breeds population is extremely low.
A recent report states, these initiatives will not be successful if the women's role as keepers of indigenous livestock is not taken into account. Women have to be the central players in conservation campaigns where gender issues are made central to projects, programs and policies that focus on animal genetic resource management.
The following actions should be taken at the project level:
If governments really want their conservation programs to bare fruit, they can:
International agencies can back up national efforts to empower women livestock keepers by collecting and disseminating gender data, and putting the issue on the global agenda in the appropriate forums.
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