Nearly one-quarter of the world’s livestock breeds are at risk for extinction, and that has the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concerned.

Five years ago the FAO called the rate of livestock breed extinction “alarming,” saying that those breeds play an important role in helping feed the world’s poor, and those diverse genetic resources can help mitigate the effects of global warming. The FAO urged the international community to adopt a global action plan to stem the erosion and protect the world’s food supply.

This week the FAO claims progress in their campaign to stop the decline of genetic diversity. Representatives from nearly 100 countries are in Rome attending the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to review the implementation of the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources, adopted in 2007.

Reports from 80 countries on the progress made in implementing that plan suggest many governments are putting programs in place to reverse the decline in the numbers of indigenous livestock breeds. A substantial gap, however, remains that must be addressed, representatives were told.

“The encouraging news is that on average the countries that submitted reports have begun to implement about half the actions agreed under the Global Plan of Action ranging from conservation schemes to surveys of livestock numbers, to the development of policies and legal frameworks addressing livestock biodiversity," said Irene Hoffmann, Chief of FAO's Animal Genetic Resources Branch.

But, according to a release from the FAO, progress has been more marked in developed countries with many countries in Africa, the Near East and Latin America and the Caribbean still lagging behind.

The Near East is regarded as one of the cradles of livestock diversity, the FAO says. It was here that several species, including cattle, sheep, goats and dromedary camels, were first domesticated. Africa, with its diverse tropical and subtropical environments, is another important hotspot of diversity.

Indigenous breeds are important in agriculture because they are adapted to often harsh local conditions, contain unique genetic material important for breeding programs and are often a livelihood bastion for poor households because they are easier to keep than exotic breeds. In a world threatened by climate change, breeds that are resistant to drought, extreme heat or tropical diseases are of major potential importance.

According to the latest available data, about 22 percent of the world’s livestock breeds are classified as being at risk for extinction.

"There are about 45 countries that are preparing, or have already prepared, national strategies and action plans for their animal genetic resources, and about half of these are developing countries," Hoffmann said.

The Governments of Germany, Norway and Switzerland contributed more than $1 million to an FAO Trust Account to support the Global Plan of Action's implementation. FAO announced the first eight projects involving 22 countries to improve the management of animal genetic resources.