The Indian desi cow is as much of a symbol of India as the Bengal Tiger or the Taj Mahal, but this may not last. Unfortunately, new agricultural preferences have resulted in foreign crossbreeds edging out India’s native breeds, which may be extinct within a decade.
India is the world’s top dairy producer. According to India’s National Dairy Development Board, India produced 127.3 million metric tonnes of milk in 2011-12. With India’s steady increase in population, milk production will need to continue to grow to meet demand. In response, India’s government has spent decades promoting the cross-breeding of native dairy cattle to bulls from foreign breeds like the Holstein.
As a result of the cross-breeding program, Indian dairy cattle are now producing milk at higher rates. But this cross-breeding program is not appropriate for all Indian farmers. As a Dutch breed, Holsteins are adapted to a very different climate from India’s. Thus, crossbred cattle need to be kept in expensive, air-conditioned shelters.
This is important because smallholder and landless farmers own 68 percent of India’s dairy cattle. These small farmers cannot afford to build the facilities needed by crossbred cattle, and thus need cows that thrive in India’s climate.
However, crossbred genetics are now very widespread among India’s cattle. Three of India’s dairy breeds — the Red Sindhi, Sahiwal, and Tharparker — may soon be extinct. This will make it harder for small farmers in India to obtain cattle they can afford to take care of.
India’s loss of cattle breed diversity mirrors trends elsewhere, including in the United States – 93 percent of U.S. dairy cattle are now Holsteins.
The loss of genetic diversity in India’s cattle is an example of a potentially dangerous global trend. Many food sources around the world are becoming increasingly uniform to satisfy the desires of food marketers. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s illustrates the potentially devastating consequences of such lost genetic diversity. According to the University of California at Berkeley’s Evolution Resources Library, “[a]lthough the famine ultimately had many causes, the disaster would likely not have been so terrible had more genetically variable potatoes been planted.”
Future food supply disasters could come from plant or animal disease epidemics, or from climate change-induced flooding or drought. Genetic diversity among food sources helps to insure against such disasters.
Fortunately, there are organizations working to preserve such diversity. The Vechur Conservation Trust was founded to preserve endangered livestock breeds in India. In the United States, organizations like the SVF Foundation and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy are working to preserve heritage breeds. Also, organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange are working to preserve heirloom plant varieties.