Ecosystems underpin our continued existence by ensuring the food, water, and raw materials for all our basic needs. Ecosystems are the animals, communities and landscapes that sustain and surround us. At Harvest Launceston Community Farmers’ Market, the producers of heirloom tomatoes, to rare breed pigs, the apiarists, fruit and vegetable growers are working to ensure that they contribute to the diversity of local systems.
An ecosystem comprises the living systems and their interaction with each other and non-living environments to provide benefits and services to the world. This includes clean water, the regulation of climate and diseases, the pollination of crops and soil formation and the physical and cultural landscapes that make up the many diverse communities around the world.
Like the plants and insects, livestock play an important role in ecosystems and the choices the farmers make in what and how they farm contributes directly to the ongoing maintenance of ecosystems. Over the centuries farmers have selected and bred livestock to emphasise particular traits. Some breeds have unique characteristics such as disease resistance, tolerance from climatic extremes or meeting specialised product needs. However, there is increasing concern that the genetic base of the worlds’ domestic animals is being eroded at a worrying rate.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations notes that effective management of animal genetic diversity is essential for global food security but that this is under threat by increasing demands for food from growing populations. Genetic erosion of livestock limits our ability to adapt to challenges from climate change, emerging diseases and population growth. For instance, breeds that can meet intensive farming methods have been preferred over others, which has led to the demise of livestock not suited to industrial farming systems. The FAO estimates that 17 percent of livestock breeds worldwide are at risk of extinction.
Apart from the threat to species diversity, livestock play an essential role in maintaining ecosystems. Grazing and browsing have a positive effect on vegetation and biodiversity of land and plants, which is essential in water filtration and prevention of soil erosion. Livestock are also very good at recycling waste and turning crop residues and fibrous plant material into nutrients for human consumption, organic matter for plant growth and soil formation.
The FOA notes that there is a lack of appreciation of the role of animals suited to various climates and landscapes in regulating ecosystems and by protecting the diversity of breeds farmers can ensure that they are able to adapt to future challenges.
Key to ensuring livestock diversity is that the animal (or plant) has economic value. Products that are consumed directly, such as food have an obvious value but the role of pollinators and nutrient recycling are not as easily quantifiable. This lack of appreciation can threaten the survival of ecosystems.
Therefore it is vital that we understand and value diversity and support those small niche producers who are protecting and creating a market for rare breed livestock and heritage seeds. Farmers’ markets such as Harvest Launceston can support local producers and contribute to ensuring the ongoing viability of ecosystems and the biodiversity they are dependent upon.