"In the US, Europe, China, India, and South America, there are well-established genebanks actively preserving regional livestock diversity," said Carlos Seré, Director General of the Nairobi based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
Seré cited a UN FAO report that said that over-reliance on just a few breeds of a handful of farm animal species, such as high-milk yielding Holstein-Friesian cows, egg laying White Leghorn chickens, and fast-growing Large White pigs, was causing the loss of an average of one livestock breed every month.
Many breeds of African, Asian and Latin American livestock are at risk of extinction, he said.
The report, "The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources," surveyed farm animals in 169 countries and found that an astonishing 90 percent of cattle in industrialized countries came from only six very tightly defined breeds.
The black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, for example, was found in 128 countries and in all regions of the world, the report said.
Seré said there was an urgent need to rapidly establish genebanks to conserve the sperm and ovaries of key animals critical for the global population's future survival.
"Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate. In many cases we will not even know the true value of an existing breed until it's already gone. This is why we need to act now to conserve what's left by putting them in genebanks," said Seré.
Seré said a genebank in Africa should be established on a priority basis as one of four practical steps to better characterize, use, and conserve the genetic basis of farm animals for the livestock production systems around the world.
"Sadly, Africa has been left wanting and that absence is sorely felt right now because this is one of the regions with the richest remaining diversity and is likely to be a hotspot of breed losses in this century," said Seré.
"This is a major step in the right direction. The international community is beginning to appreciate the seriousness of this loss of livestock genetic diversity. FAO is leading inter-governmental processes to better manage these resources," he said.
"These negotiations will take time to bear fruit. Meanwhile, some activities can be started now to help save breeds that are most at risk," he added.
The report was presented at the First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, being held in Interlaken, Switzerland, from September 3-7, 2007.