My family just brought home two heritage breed Hungarian Mangalitsa piglets. As obsessed as we are with their little sounds and tails, I was also curious about their history. These piglets were expensive and I wanted to understand what the big deal was about our newest farm additions.
A heritage breed is a line of domestic animals that were bred by humans before the 1900s. Some of these breeds are centuries-old. These animals tend to be more indigenous to place than some of the industrial barn animals we see today.
For example, the Mangalitsas adapted thick, wooly fur to survive Hungarian winters, which makes them an ideal pig for the equally cold Minnesota winters. Other heritage breeds feature elegant colors, bold feathers and unique traits I’d never seen before. Gorgeous all-white turkeys, Wiltshire Horn sheep with curly-q horns, and pigs with wattles on their necks abound. Frankly, these animals are just plain fun to look at.
After the industrialization, conveyor-belt-like transformation of agriculture in the 20th century, many heritage breeds lost popularity. For better or for worse, the new breeds of chickens, pigs, cows and other animals were specifically bred for rapid growth, feed efficiency and maximum productivity.
In the mid-twentieth century, as Malthusian fears escalated, this was a big win for efficiency and hunger. Meat prices dropped, and fears of human overpopulation were temporarily assuaged. It’s important to not discount how truly impressive our mass food production is. In many ways, it’s a technological miracle of human ingenuity.
However, today we know that mass-producing meat has also come with sacrifices. Some are well known -- hog sludge polluting rivers and groundwater, carbon monoxide emissions from cows, deforestation, animal abuse, antibiotic-resistant diseases, mad cow disease, even loss of flavor, texture and nutrition from the meat, to name a few.
But one of the consequences of mass meat production that we don’t talk about is the loss of genetic diversity. That’s where these heritage breeds come in.
An easy way to think about the distinction between a species and a breed is through the lens of man’s best friend. Dog is the species; husky, chihuahua and Great Pyrenees are the breeds. In our current industrial agricultural environment -- from meat to eggs to fruits to vegetables -- we are eating from just a few select breeds.
In fact, according to the Quennell Lake Livestock Conservancy, just four companies (and their subsidiaries) own almost all the genetics for commercial broilers and egg-layers in Canada, with names like Tyson Chicken at the forefront.
It’s bizarre to me that a company can patent the genetic code of a rotisserie chicken. But beyond the heady legal and moral questions of gene ownership, we also encounter some practical issues.
For example, a common complaint about the German shepherd is that it’s so inbred that most inherit bad hips and joints. Inbreeding in human populations is taboo across the world in almost every culture. When animals or plants of similar genetic makeup breed, there is a higher chance of certain uncommon recessive traits reappearing. Furthermore, as the genetic makeup between animals or plants becomes more and more identical, we lose disease resistance and the ability to adapt.
When you have a population of genetic diversity, let’s say, a flock of geese, and each one has a unique genetic code, then you have a flock with slightly different beak sizes, eyesight, flight abilities, coloration and so forth.
This leaves the population more adaptable to change; for instance, if their food source were to suddenly shift, those with advantageous beak sizes would find more food and pass this new beneficial trait on to their offspring. This is classic Darwinian "survival of the fittest."
By "perfecting" the efficiency of the egg-laying hen or the dairy cow or the Thanksgiving turkey, who grow fast and don’t get sick and tolerate crowded conditions, we seem to have conquered nature. But change is coming. What if the temperatures in North America suddenly rise and the animals can’t take the heat? What if there’s another drought? What if an animal population gets taken down by a new disease -- like a new swine flu or bird flu?
That’s where heritage breeds could save the day. These animals preserve decades if not centuries of human ingenuity, cross-breeding and adaptation. Their cells actively conserve their genetic diversity, the random mutations they have accrued to better survive in their surroundings. If the day comes when the Tyson chickens are in trouble, cross-breeding could be the answer to feeding ourselves and our grandchildren.
Unfortunately, I found that many heritage breeds are actually endangered. According to the Livestock Conservancy, all kinds of rare-breed farm animals from geese to goats are getting harder to find. It makes sense that our Mangalitsa piglets came at a high price; although not endangered, they are uncommon, and people are willing to pay a high price for what has been dubbed the “kobe beef of pork.”
Does this mean you can only eat heritage-breed poultry and raise heritage-breed animals on your property? Of course not. I’m not even sure that the supply is ready for such a shift. But the idea of preserving genetic diversity in our domestic animal breeds is important to me now, and it’s something I will certainly take into consideration going forward.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.