Curtis Youngs believes the loss of any livestock breed is tragic.

“We are losing breeds and the important genes they possess — genes we may likely need in the future,” he said. “We are going to need to feed 10 billion people by the year 2050. We can’t afford to lose any of these genes.”

Youngs, an animal scientist with Iowa State University and the M.E. Ensminger Endowed Chair of International Animal Agriculture, was part of a team that produced a report dealing with the loss of genetic diversity in livestock. The findings were part of a project by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology on the need for agricultural innovation to feed the world in 2050.

“We have many people who are thinking about today and not necessarily about the future,” Youngs said. “If we lose a breed today, we are losing genes we might need in the future. It is worth the investment of time and money to collect semen and embryos, and even cryogenically preserving entire ovaries and testes.”

He said with the earth’s climate changing and surface temperatures rising, society will likely need animals that can better tolerate heat stress. Youngs cites this as one example for the need to preserve a diverse group of livestock breeds.

He points to the hog industry as another example.

“One hundred years ago, we raised hogs for fat, but today we raise them for lean meat,” Youngs said. “Those genes from 100 years ago may not be as valuable today, but maybe they will become even more valuable in the future.”

Genetic diversity in livestock is undoubtedly decreasing as breeds are lost, said Iowa State animal scientist Max Rothschild. This has been occurring more rapidly over the last 30 years, partially due to an industry that has become more consolidated and productive, he said.

“Most local breeds came about due to need,” Rothschild said. “Looking at the pork industry with our production of commodity pork, we are losing some genetic diversity with this type of production.”

He said it is possible for breed popularity to be resurrected. Rothschild points to the Berkshire hog as a breed that faced challenges in the past but is now viewed as having the ability to produce a premium pork product.

“The real driver is economics,” he said. “If there isn’t a good economic reason to keep those breeds, they likely will not survive.”

Trends can also drive genetic change. Rothschild said the rise and fall in the popularity of pot-bellied pigs as pets is an example.

Other breeds are being proactive in preserving genetics. One example, Rothschild said, is the Mangalitsa hog.

“We’re working with them to help develop genetic testing to keep the breed pure,” he said. “They feel their breed produces higher quality meat and have maintained three (color) lines within the breed.

“There’s no doubt that crossbred animals are going to display more hybrid vigor. Every market pig sold is crossbred. But the only way to do that is to have a pure breed or lines in that program.”

Youngs said with the available technology, preserving genetics is fairly simple. He said frozen semen will conservatively last for 10,000 years or more if it is stored properly.

He said many smaller livestock breeds are not aggressively storing genetics.

He is hopeful the U.S. government will help fund research to enhance the long-term storage of livestock genetics as part of the National Animal Germplasm Program.

“It’s important that increased funding becomes available to help preserve these genetics,” Youngs said. “We don’t want to see any more breeds disappear.”

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.