Maintaining genetic diversity for the next generation

IMG_2635 A few weeks ago I heard Paul Bosland of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, talk peppers on the radio. He was outlining a problem in the chile industry. Years of drought and competition from China, was hurting the economy of small farms in the state. Each year seeds from the most productive plants were saved and used to grow next year’s crop. The plants were not selected for taste, drought tolerance or pest resistance, but only for productivity. He asked the national seed storage lab in Colorado to go into their repository and pull out of liquid nitrogen, some of the original seeds of the New Mexico Chile, over 150 years old. They propagated those and are selling small samples of these new, old seeds. The only way to save the cultivar is to grow it. I have a packet.

One of the many problems with monoculture is the lack of seed varieties that farmers are choosing to grow. When our climate changes, the seeds currently in use might not adapt to the new conditions. New pests and weeds might move into the area. New diseases could spread quickly through the entire agricultural industry. Nature provided us with seeds that can tolerate, adapt and survive, but are we letting them go extinct by not using them? If, as a farmer, I grow 10 different kinds of winter squash or green beans I stand a better chance of surviving a drought or an insect/disease infestation and I increase the odds even more if I grow something that my neighbor does not.

The same problem exists in animal agriculture. Most of our beef comes from two cattle breeds or crosses of those two. The semen of one bull might be used in 10,000 dairy cows.

D. Phillip Sponenberg and Carolyn J Christman in A Conservation Breeding Handbook described our situation. “Livestock breeders of today inherit extraordinary genetic wealth in the form of distinct breeds of domestic animals. In the past, it was certain that every generation of breeders would serve for a time as stewards for this treasure. … Times have changed, however, and the very traditions of animal breeding are now threatened… As a result, future generations may not receive the genetic treasure we have inherited. The genetic diversity essential to selection of animals, environmental adaptation, and maintaining agricultural opportunity may be lost.” *

The Livestock Conservancy recognizes 14 breeds of sheep that they have placed on the threatened or critical lists. One of those breeds is the Gulf Coast Native Sheep, the sheep we raise. They are adapted to an environment that is tough on sheep. They are resistant to parasites and hoof rot, are tolerant of our summer heat, and are vigorous foragers. They fell out of favor after the development of anthelmintic medications made it possible to bring in larger sheep, less adapted to this area. Larger sheep grew faster in feeder situations, providing more meat and a quicker turnaround. With our commitment to minimize the use of medications and to feed the sheep entirely on forage, the Gulf Coast Native Sheep seemed like the perfect breed to conserve. And the only way to conserve the breed is to raise it as an agricultural product. Without consuming these diverse breeds of sheep, goats, poultry, hogs and cattle they will vanish into the history books with the dodo bird. We cannot preserve their genetic diversity in a seed bank. When medications become ineffective, companies will develop stronger and less environmentally safe products, farmers will give higher doses of medications and the diseases, like weeds, will continue to adapt. Where do we hit the wall? There are animals out there that can exist in many different conditions, and we have the obligation to future generations to save them.

We attempt to do our part to preserve our genetic diversity through rare breeds and rare seeds. We experiment with diverse crops, revive unusual species, and support companies that do the same. Next we will turn our attention to rare poultry.

*A Conservation Breeding Handbook by D. Phillip Sponenberg and Carolyn J Christman

A link to the Livestock Conservancy –

I have linked three places to purchase rare, saved seed and the first one is in my hometown of Berea, Ky.: Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds this is, of course not an extensive list, just a few I know of.

For more information on our sheep breed:

Slow food’s ark of taste lists the gulf coast sheep and many other different foods that are not found in the grocery store.

Here are links to a few talks on related subjects.

This is just one of Vandana Shiva’s many videos.

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