“The best breed is the one best-adapted to its stable, its farmer, its altitude, and to the forage that it eats. If we take a Friesian cow from the Po Valley up to a mountain pasture 2000 meters above sea level, it will find itself in great difficulty. On the other hand, if we take a Tyrol Grey cow more used to stumbling among rocks than walking in grass, and bring it down into the Valley… she too will find herself in great difficulty.”Giampaolo Gaiarin
In our popular image of the farmyard all the milking cows have a white coat with great black spots—Holstein Friesians—while all the goats are pale as snow—i.e. of the Saanen breed.
This common perception isn’t completely wrong, either: these are among the most widespread animal breeds in the world. But there’s an enormous underlying problem.
Over time, we have selectively bred the most productive breeds—the average Holstein cow can produce 20 liters of milk a day, almost double what a Tyrol Grey or an Abondance cow produces—but this choice is often made at the expense of milk quality, and leads to the disappearance of local breeds.
According to the FAO, there are 7745 local breeds: 26% of them are at risk of extinction and there isn’t adequate information for another 67%. Only 7% of these local breeds are not considered to be at risk. In Europe, half of the breeds which existed at the beginning of the 20th century have already disappeared.
The extinction of a breed is an irreversible loss, and not just in genetic terms. We tend to forget that behind every breed there’s an ecosystem, a culture, a craft, a gastronomic tradition, an economy.
Breeds and local areas
Local breeds have established a biological relationship with the area they live in, which has improved over time through adaptation to specific climatic and environmental factors, creating the optimal conditions for the production of milk and cheese. It’s not just a question of fat and protein percentages, but also of the aromatic qualities of dairy products.
Giving preference to more “productive” breeds—productive for whom?—means unbalancing the equilibrium between animals and their local areas, homogenizing taste, standardizing flavors, and threatening biodiversity.
- Il gusto del formaggio, Slow Food Editore, 2012
- Interview with Giampaolo Gaiarin, Cheese 2017