The National Biodiversity Centre’s efforts to save indigenous cattle breeds and crop varieties deserves our praise. As modern development continues to change the way we live, we face the threat of losing our native animal breeds and crop varieties that are adapted to the environment well. It is believed that we have already lost a host of breeds and varieties.

Today, according to the available records, we have only 39 livestock breeds of eight different species and 194 varieties of cereal. Among the principal reasons for the irretrievable loss of breeds and varieties are switch from traditional agriculture systems to market-oriented cash crops and focus on rearing high-production livestock.

The native livestock breeds and crop varieties have cultural values and are resistant to some of the emerging diseases and pests. It has been found that native sheep breeds are disappearing fast with local communities. Lack of farm hands  and poor returns from the animal are some of the reasons behind farmers making a switch.

For example, the only two nomadic families along the Dagala range that reared sheep have now given up the practice altogether. If the trend continues, the native sheep such as Jakar, Sibsoo, Sarpang, and Sakten could disappear very soon. Such a total loss of genetic resources will have a far-reaching impact on the lives of farmers and agriculture.

There is an urgent need to revert the trend. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around three-quarters of the world’s crop genetic diversity has been lost in the 20th century as farmers adopted high-yielding breeds with relatively little genetic diversity. 

Efforts such as revamping the sheep breeding centre in Bumthang, developing a highland development programme, and focusing on sheep product development to encourage people to continue the practice should gain momentum. There has to be a sustained push with clear goals and objectives. Integrated community support may be necessary to save livestock breeds from extinction. 

As one Bhutanese expert said the whole animal genetic resource is at risk. “Our calculations based on observation from the past two or three years is that by the next decade we will lose many of the native breeds. If the current situation continues, we might lose them all in half a decade.”

Experts say that seeds from traditional agricultural varieties could help solve food shortages and malnutrition and boost food system resilience to climate and cultural challenges.

Therefore, the Centre’s efforts to preserve native breeds and varieties before the country loses them through gene bank is commendable. Distributing the breeds and varieties among farmers is vitally important.