Center for Bio-diversitet

Danish farm animal Biodiversity

Dear Minister,

Thank you for your invitation to participate in the preparation of the future strategy for the conservation of the genetic resources of domestic animals.

The Centre for Biodiversity is, as you know, an independent biodiversity information centre both for crops and for domestic livestock. The two areas have both convergent and contrasting problems, but what they have in common is that crop varieties and traditional breeds can only survive within a cultural context, either the rustic breeding culture or, where the larger animals are concerned, traditional stock-breeders’ organisations.

No one has put it better than Vandana Shiva’s often-used quote:
“The co-evolution of culture, life forms, and habitats has conserved the biological diversity of this planet. Cultural diversity and biological diversity go hand in hand.”

The Centre for Biodiversity does not regard it as its task to protect the interests of individual breeds, except in extraordinary cases where they might otherwise vanish; in contrast, we very much support protecting the interests of the traditional farming culture which supports biodiversity. Present Danish strategy on farm animal genetic resources has been separated from that link and if Denmark is to live up to the Rio Convention there needs to be a new way of thinking here. Up to now we have used the Genetic Resources Committee rules to try and promote a very small number of breeds; but other rules in the same period have impoverished and repressed the broad-ranging breeding culture which accommodates both the specially prioritised breeds and a very large number of other domestic breeds with historical roots in Denmark.

The main problem with Denmark’s overall approach till now has been a lack of an overall view and no integration of biodiversity’s interests into legislation and rules affecting the sector.

The Rio Convention and the FAO recommendations state that countries should preserve their entire pool of genetic diversity including breeds which are bred with social, religious, cultural or recreational purposes in mind. There should also be special efforts to preserve individual breeds having their origin in or only found in a single country. The Danish approach has hitherto concentrated on the latter and has had very restricted success because it has been separated from that link.

It is as if the roof has been built before the foundations and walls. In our opinion we need foundations to create the fertile soil for a vigorous breeding culture in accord with Denmark’s history and where necessary add to it various measures such as financial support for the breeds and lines which are particularly Danish.

General strengthening of biodiversity in Danish livestock will primarily favour improvements for all small breeders of non-industrial breeds. Otherwise the small farmer and breeding culture supporting traditional breeds would disappear. The Rio Convention stressed the importance of preserving local culture which supports domesticated diversity and of adapting legislation and rules so that such cultures can be favoured and conserved.

The Convention states that all countries should
“identify processes and categories of activities which have or are likely to have significant adverse impacts on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, and monitor their effects through sampling and other techniques” (Article 7(c)),
“develop or maintain necessary legislation and/or other regulatory provisions for the protection of threatened species and populations”,
“where a significant adverse effect on biological diversity has been determined pursuant to Article 7, regulate or manage the relevant processes and categories of activities” (Articles 8(k) and 8(l)),
“integrate consideration of the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources into national decision-making”,
“adopt measures relating to the use of biological resources to avoid or minimise adverse impacts on biological diversity”,
“protect and encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements” (Articles 10(a), 10(b) and 10(c)).

Modernising legislation

Preserving biological and cultural diversity has genetic, cultural, environmental and social aspects and should not therefore fall under one specific ministry. Because of the high efficiency of Danish agriculture it might be worth considering whether the environment ministry should not be the supreme authority in the long term both because there is an interaction with the conservation of wildlife biodiversity and environmental law and because it would be appropriate to exempt traditional breeds from the rules designed for modern high-tech. agriculture and its export interests.

An overhaul of the strategy for conserving farm animal genetic resources should start with the following:
- a law, plus rationalisation of rules to eliminate those which make it difficult for Danes to carry on their tradition of breeding non-industrial breeds;
- guaranteeing the people the general right to breed animals where they live;
- giving special advantages to ‘in situ’ populations of traditional breeds;
- giving traditional breeds special protection in the event of outbreaks of infectious diseases in industrial farms’ livestock;
- allowing all non-industrial animals not providing raw materials for Danish agricultural exports to achieve the same veterinary status as wild animals.

Such a rationalisation will create the foundations for a broad biodiversity and the survival of those involved in breeding it, as recommended by Rio and the FAO.

We know that farmers’ organisations will reject this out of hand but their rejection is not based on facts.

Rationalisation is achievable without damaging agricultural exports and food security, simply by taking account of the nature of individual diseases when designing new unbureaucratic rules. Where many traditional breeds, especially small animals, are concerned, their association with agricultural legislation is based on production conditions which have long been consigned to history. There is often no link at all with actual conditions in present-day Denmark where there is virtually no contact between highly-specialised agricultural production and hobby breeding of traditional livestock.

For example, no modern egg producer would dream of going to a hobby poultry market to buy hens for his flock, even though such markets are currently subject to rules which have destroyed a large part of the rustic breeding culture, namely the development of breeding animals, allegedly out of consideration of the health of farm livestock.

This can be done without subjecting hobby and leisure breeders to agricultural law, for instance by means of information on good breeding practice and market ethics and the possibility of emergency vaccination in the event of acute risk of infection.

If the animals are moved away from agricultural legislation they will also no longer be eligible for delivery to export firms; thus the agriculture sector’s trustworthiness will actually be equally well secured as today, when we have to admit that many of the diseases from which we are officially declared free are found in wild animals in Denmark’s countryside.

Some breeds will inhabit a border zone where there is a desire to create a niche product, but so long as the niche production is distinct from export production subjecting the animals to more appropriate requirements is defensible. Evaluation must, however, be carried out on a case-by-case basis having regard to the veterinary situation. BSE is a good example of a disease from which no animal can be excluded because it develops so slowly and is harmful to humans, and because it is not yet known whether breeding will be possible after resistance or vaccination. Traditional breeds and animals kept for non-commercial leisure breeding could simply be indemnified where the financial outlay on the measures taken is concerned.

The current rules for pigeon vaccination, sales of eggs from hobby hens, the requirement to register sales of poultry, have in the past few years had a particularly destructive effect on this traditional, flourishing sector of Danish rustic culture. It is a form of folklore that cannot support bureaucratisation. The reason why poultry and breeding have not disappeared is a combination of circumventing the rules and the latest generation of breeders’ veneration of their birds. But access for new young breeders is greatly obstructed by the rules when they are upheld; it is actually easier to acquire industrial hens for hobby breeding than birds of a traditional breed, and that is diametrically opposed to the Rio aim of conserving traditional biodiversity. These are rules which do much harm compared to the benefits they are aimed at, benefits which can be achieved in other ways without repressing the flourishing culture of poultry breeding which has existed here for centuries. A rustic culture which has kept several hundred different breeds rich in tradition going and enriched many lives.

One should not forget that disease problems are greatest in modern, highly efficient agricultural production because of the intensive pressure the animals are subject to. Animals in hobby groups are usually in a good state of health, especially when they have been bred that way for generations. Hobby breeders traditionally have a good understanding of breeding according to strict health criteria by selecting out sick or weak animals thereby maintaining the population’s genetic potential for resistance. The Convention stresses the need to: “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity” (Article 8(j)).

Even if the current permanent restrictions and bureaucratic measures are abolished it will still be possible to introduce the temporary local or regional restrictions on transport and sale which have always been used in times of acute outbreaks of epidemic diseases. A new positive measure could also be considered: offering free and voluntary emergency vaccination for hobby and leisure breeders’ animals in a risk zone so they do not become the victims of infection from large production units.


In general much of the funding is used to strengthen publicity and breeder associations. Direct financial support to individual breeders should be limited to those breeds where it is absolutely necessary. For by far the majority of breeds, rationalising the rules will have a much more beneficial effect than financial support which can have negative side-effects when new breeders are attracted more by the money than love of the breeds, which the major change in the composition of breeders on the Genetic Resources committee is probably an expression of.

Incentives in the form of financial support cannot stand alone and cannot compensate for the general trend to make small holdings more difficult to run with more bureaucracy.

But extra measures will be needed, such as financial support for breeds or lines that are only found in Denmark, especially for those that are expensive to keep and very low in productivity. Such support should be closely linked to conditions requiring animals to be kept in a manner and an environment which safeguards conservation of their breeds’ original characteristics. Quite rightly, the Convention stresses that in-situ conservation “in the case of domesticated or cultivated species, [should be] in the surroundings where they have developed their distinctive properties” (Article 2).

The way support has been paid out thus far has not required actual in-situ conservation, but has allowed animals to be kept in any old conditions, which have permitted genetic drift in quite different directions among the individual breeders.

Farm animals are the result of selection and the original selection should be maintained if we wish to keep the breeds’ properties intact.

In other words, for instance, an old Danish dairy cattle breed should be kept under the conditions the breed has traditionally adapted to with regard to feed composition, etc.

The animals must be milked for at least one lactation period before they and their offspring are sent for further breeding so that their breed’s yield can be maintained. That way we can ensure that the breed is not selected away from its original genetic balance, for example, becoming more of a meat breed, because financial incentives induce breeders to feed as much as possible and choose breeding animals according to their growth. Since the breeds’ yield is so low that milking on its own is not profitable, work on preserving the breed’s genetic design will require financial compensation.


Organised breeding in associations with stud books, registration, competitions and trophies is only one side of the story. Danish rustic culture has a very rich tradition of small-scale breeding, a tradition with deep roots in cultural history, so it is an important factor in conserving biodiversity in the broad sense.

Biodiversity is a living, dynamic parameter which cannot be recorded and counted once and for all; only by reinforcing and protecting the rustic culture which is linked to hobby and leisure breeding can we fulfil Rio’s objectives here.

By reinforcing breed associations and information we will create incentives to as many people as possible who want to breed animals on a small scale for their own enjoyment without being registered breeders who show at exhibitions, etc., for prizes, to choose despite everything straight-bred traditional breeds rather than hybrids or industrial breeds. That increases quality without making breeders support recipients. It also provides a recruitment basis for more organised breeding.

According to the Convention we have a special obligation towards the “old Danish breeds”, breeds of other origins which are now only found in Denmark, and special Danish lines of breeds of other origin, and they must be given special emphasis in connection with a general reinforcing of information, but it is important that we do not continue to propagate the misunderstanding that the conservation of genetic resources is only about x number of breeds which are designated “old Danish farm breeds” by a committee.

It is far from Rio’s objective to conserve the largest possible amount of biodiversity, to work so closely with the sector that the broad biodiversity disappears while only a few national breeds are supported. Or to protect a breed either in one or in another country because it originally arose in a country other than the one in which it is currently being straight-bred. What is more, the FAO requires that all local breeds and lines are reported to its database. (See point 1.9 in the World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity 2nd edition. Ed. Beate Scherf, FAO, Rome 1995.)

The provisional report from the international evaluation committee tries to separate out animals without production potential; in Denmark it is the social and cultural dimension which is most important. The FAO stresses inclusion of those dimensions even in poor countries which could probably be tempted only to consider the financial benefit. This differentiation therefore indicates that the committee is not entirely clear how high-tech Danish agriculture is today. The potential financial benefit of the Jutland Horse’s pulling power to production is about the same order today as the value of the flying ability of the Tumlinge Dove, and the same is true of a large number of breeds. Their cultural, social and aesthetic value completely overshadows their economic significance; however, that element of Danish culture of which they are an essential part is more at risk than ever.

In The Global Strategy for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources the FAO describes domestic animals’ cultural significance as follows:
“Domestic animals as social and cultural assets.
Many communities have traditions and lifestyles that are fundamentally linked to domestic animals. While it is not always possible to assign monetary values to such linkages, the non-monetary values to local community identity are essential. Social and cultural values are often underappreciated outside indigenous and local communities. However, to many communities, livestock and particular genetic types of livestock are fundamental aspects of social and cultural identity, linked to marriage, religious practices and other community events.” (p. 11) Rome 1999
and in its Primary Guidelines for Preparing National AnGR Management Plans the FAO stipulates the best way to describe each individual breed as follows:
“List all important uses of livestock in the nation. These will obviously include the production of food, fibre and animal power, but should not neglect the value of manure for fuel and fertiliser; recreational, cultural and religious uses; and the use of farm animals as a method of risk reduction and holding and protecting assets in unstable economies.” (p. 49)

Proposal for future structure and strategy

In a highly developed country such as Denmark the conservation of genetic resources in the active production populations and conservation of the more original traditional breeds are two tasks which have little in common. The purpose of the animals is quite different and breeders of the two groups have nothing much in common other than that their animals belong to the same biological species. The Centre for Biodiversity therefore proposes the following solution.

We regard this restructuring of work on conserving the genetic resources of domestic animals as a good opportunity to find a more all-round solution so we have taken the liberty of including the corresponding conservation of plant genetic resources (cultivated plants) in the model. But crops can of course be removed from the model if the preference is to separate the two related areas for action.

1 The active production populations

In future, monitoring of genetic resources among active production populations should be entrusted to an independent genetic resources committee based at Foulum1*, possibly the current committee in trimmed-down form without the cultural and environmental interests.
That area has been the strong point of the current committee and a close link to the production-oriented research facility at Foulum is a definite advantage.

2 Committee for conservation of biological and cultural diversity

A new committee for the conservation of biological and cultural diversity should be set up to ensure conservation of domestic breeds (and possibly crop plants) which are nowadays of primarily cultural, aesthetic and social significance, of organised hobby and leisure breeding and of the living Danish rustic culture which conserves those animals (and plants).

The committee’s terms of reference should be in line with the Rio Convention’s aims and objectives and the FAO recommendations; taking account of the fact that Danish agriculture is so high-tech that the animals (and plants) are not likely to have any production potential in the foreseeable future, but are a long-term gene bank where the emphasis is on the breeds’ (and varieties’) current cultural, recreational, aesthetic and social importance and on conservation of the animals’ genetic design, including natural disease resistance.
There should also be emphasis on acknowledging that each reared breed (or cultivated variety) is a result of human creativity, that that creativity is an element of the breeding culture, and that new bred varieties selected for properties other than the purely productive are also part of the overall biological diversity.

The committee’s main tasks should therefore be:

- to promote the keeping of livestock (and crops) in the habitats and under the conditions in which they developed their special properties. Thus, for example, breeds (and varieties) should not have their original properties selected out by changing the selection process, nor should they lose their natural resistance through the use of drugs.
- to constantly monitor legislation, rules, social development, breeding trends, etc., for possible negative impact on biodiversity and cultural diversity.
- to support initiatives which promote publicity, information, coordination and networking.

The committee should actively seek and create contacts with organised and non-organised breeders, groups and associations linked to the areas the committee’s terms of reference cover. The form and character of such contacts should be based on the grass-roots reality, not on civil servants’ routines. The committee should see its function vis-à-vis breeders more as inspiring and advisory rather than controlling and decision-making. Grass-roots’ active self-management should be strengthened as much as possible.

The first task of the committee should be to draft a rationalisation of the rules in an open dialogue with all those interested at grass-roots level.

The committee’s proposed composition:

1 member (chair) with an ethnological background and broad expertise in popular and rustic culture, etc.
1 member with broad expertise in environment and biodiversity
1 member with broad expertise in the history, breeding and genetics of domestic animals
1 member with broad expertise in the history, breeding and genetics of crop plants.
The last two members should be designated by the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (KVL). The daily work of all designated members should have no close links to modern productive agriculture or associated research.

Representatives of the grass roots

Once a general rationalisation of the rules has been done and there is a broader understanding of what biodiversity encompasses, there should be a discussion of whether the committee should add three representatives of the grass roots.

Since internal democracy in many of the associations concerned is already somewhat indirect and conservation is not always their prime concern, even though they have breeds worthy of preservation in their care, the following model for appointing grass-roots representatives for a limited number of years (e.g. 3-5) aat a time is proposed:

All associations, groupings and individuals participating or involved in one way or another in the conservation of biological and cultural diversity may nominate candidates.
The permanent committee will choose from among those nominated three persons who should together be able to represent the grass roots in a broad manner: the different animal groups, plants, organised breed associations, unorganised traditional breeders, etc.

Differentiation between the committees

In some cases it is not immediately obvious which of the new genetic resources committee a breed should fall under, e.g. Landrace Pig 1970, SDM [Black-and-white Dairy Cattle] and RDM [Danish Red].

The differentiation between the agriculture- and production-oriented resources committee and the committee for conserving the biological and cultural diversity must be done via a concrete evaluation of each breed’s potential and the breeders’ interests.

The background to these proposals is contained in more detail in:
(1) The Centre’s reply to the International Evaluation and its annexes:
(2) Reply to hearing on Denmark’s strategy for sustainable development: (danish)
We also enclose relevant issues of the Centre’s newsletter “Loci”


Heine Refsing, Centre for Biodiversity

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latest update January 2004.

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Center for Bio-diversitet is an independent NGO/CSO information-center. We aim to promote biological diversity and the protection and conservation of old and new varieties with valuable characteristics.

Editor: Heine Refsing