Siberian Cattle and You: Why Livestock Biodiversity Matters

Nearly one quarter of agricultural animal breeds are endangered. Does that impact human culture?

heck cattle

Heck is a breed developed to be similar to cattle’s extinct wild forebearer, the auroch. (Photo: Justus de Cuveland/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

You know that commercial where the dairy cow in Wisconsin bails on his snow-bound Holstein herd and heads for California? The ad, paid for by the California Milk Advisory Board, suggests that a cold cow’s life is a miserable cow’s life; that bovine happiness comes with California sun and some chill cattle-bros to chew your cud with. And yet both states, with their disparate climates, have significant cattle populations. Elsewhere, Brahman cousins gaze on scorched scrub in India, and Yakutian cattle live 125 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia, where winter temperatures can reach -50 degrees Celsius.

Cattle have had plenty of time to cultivate this vast range in the 10,000 some years since the first wild Aurochs were domesticated in the Near East—the region where humans first kept goats, sheep and pigs too. Food derived from the world’s 1.3 billion cows figures in most diets thanks to the various descendent breeds’ ability to adapt—something people take for granted or strongly critique in somewhat unequal measure.

So it should come as a surprise that some scientists consider cattle and other livestock to be undergoing the “sixth great extinction episode” in the world’s history—an extinction that counts much of domestic agriculture, plants and animals alike, as its potential victims.

Dr. Zakri Abdul Hamid, the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity (IPBES) spoke about this decline in a recent speech given to an audience of governmental officials from around the world who work on biodiversity and economic planning. He pointed out that there has been a 75 percent drop in genetic diversity of agriculture crops over the past century, a loss that’s become increasingly well documented. The plight of farm animals, however, is less familiar and similarly dramatic: Of all the world’s domesticated breeds, 22 percent are at risk of extinction, according to a press release from IPBES. 

It’s true that American restaurants of a certain persuasion have taken up heritage pig breeds as a cause celebre, with the names of hogs being served—Tamworth, Red Wattle, Ossabaw Island, Choctaw—nearly as obscure as the cuts of meat being teased out of the whole, pasture-raised animals being butchered in the kitchen. And in Europe, efforts to “rewild” areas—returning swaths of land to a prehistoric-like state—has renewed interest in (and destigmatized) primitive breeds like Heck cattle, which were developed by Nazi geneticists to resemble the extinct Auroch—the bovine equivalent of Hitler’s purely German Aryan race.

But what about the Serbian Yakutian cows? Or Kuri cattle, a breed indigenous to the Lake Chad area in West Africa? While the former can survive the brutal Arctic winter, the latter has adapted so well to the wet, semi-aquatic environment of its pastures that it can float: The Kuri have bulbous, Elephant Man-like “horns” protruding from either side of their heads that serve as both flotation aids and cooling devices. According to the International Livestock Institute, there were less than 10,000 Kuri left in West Africa 10 years ago—a dwindling amount, but not officially endangered. The future of the Yakutian is more precarious: A mere 525 milking cows remained in 2007.

These are just two instances of dramatic adaptability shown by livestock around the world—adaptations that can be seen as symbiotic with human life, in terms of agriculture and culture alike. Without the Yakutian cattle, life in the Evenyo-Bytantay district of Siberia would not look the same—it might not even be possible.

Dr. Hamid told me in an email that the goal of the IPBES is to increase awareness of the loss in genetic diversity in agriculture, which has occurred, “due to our neglect of preserving indigenous breeds of cattle, sheep or goats in favor of modern, high-producing breeds.” Presenting things in terms that must sell well with the bureaucratic set, he wrote, “These hardy, indigenous breeds, though of low productivity, are important sources of breeding for stress-tolerance (a condition of changing environments) and resistance against emerging diseases and pests.”

Could new heat-tolerant breeds for an ever-warmer world be developed on the basis of some local cattle in a drought-prone corner of the Earth? It’s certainly a possibility—and an important one at that. But the gradual erosion of the diversity won through 10,000 years of cohabitation between cattle and humans can’t be thought of in purely pragmatic terms.

In 2005, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Helsinki undertook a broad study of Yakutian cattle, examining the herd through the lenses of genetics, anthropology, geography, history, sociology and art.  In one of the resulting papers, the author suggests that biodiversity is intimately linked with sociodiversity, a “conceptual couple” that binds together social sciences and animal sciences. The course of the paper, which tracks the fate of the Yakutian cattle through the shift from socialism to capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, is dense, but the main argument is that “sociodiversity is an important precondition to sustain biodiversity, that is, to maintain ecological sustainability.” I’d say that the inverse is true too, that once biodiversity—and the varied ways of life it supports—is lost, then our sociodiversity is hampered as well.

In other words, if only California cows are happy cows—or are, in the extreme scenario, the only cows—then we’re only one people—an insidious monoculture of a different sort.

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