Indigenous varieties and breeds
There are competing theories on how the domesticated plants and animals of today came to be. Genetic and archeological evidence have resolved some of the common questions but pioneering claims are made by different communities and many of these challenges are far from settled. But it is beyond debate that even if a particular plant or animal species was domensticated in one place, there are many different varities of the same plant or animal in different parts of the world. Over many generations, various factors from climate and soil conditions, parent variety, other ecological conditions, and human intentions, have created different varities of a particular species. For example, our ancestors selectively bred cattle for better milk yield, or adaptability to local conditions, or to serve as better beasts of burden.
As one variety of a species becomes more famous, more and more people convert to that variety, invariably leading to a decrease in the genetic diversity. In a few cases new varieties are bred using the famous non local variety with local variety to come up with newer ones, increasing the genetic diversity. Loosing the older varieties, especially when they were adapted to local conditions, is genetic wealth that we rob our future generations of.
The advent of genetically modified seeds and the barely tested or challenged theories of the manufacturers have highlighted the need to protect local seed varities. Governments, academic instiutions, NGOs, various societies and cooperatives across the world have set up seed banks to protect local genetic diversity. A less recognized loss is that of indigenous varieties of cattle. Paintings from different times representing the cow, a revered animal among Hindus, shows that almost all local varities were treated with comparable reverence and respect.
Operation Flood brought about a great revival in milk production, and cattle rearing in India. But the stress on higher milk yield also meant a swing away from indigenous varieties. As the adaptability to local climate, health and other concerns started surfacing, development of hybrids picked steam.
One of the objectives of the Central Cattle Breeding Farms of the Dept. of Animal Husbandry & Dairy development is to protect indigenous breeds. Looking at the details of the program, it does not encourage much confidence regarding sustaining traditional varieties beyond the lab. Given the religious values associated with cattle, there might be some traditional gaushalas working in this direction (I am not aware of any).
How far are we ready to go to protect genetic diversity? If we are ready to take steps to protect genetic diversity of grains like rice, wheat, bajra, jowar, raagi, etc. shouldn’t we think of cattle also along the same line?