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Biodiversity project to begin soon in Front Royal

By Katie Demeria

The Smithsonian is in the forever business, according to Pierre Comizzoli, director of the biodiversity consortium at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal. Now, the institute will be involved in ensuring a surviving food supply for future generations.

The institute recently announced plans to embark on a project with the SVF Foundation to work with biomaterials from rare heritage livestock breeds. The foundation preserves and manages germplasm, including semen, embryos, blood and cells from those rare livestock breeds.

Comizzoli, also a research biologist, said the project, called the "Smithsonian and SVF Biodiversity and Preservation Project," is aimed at encouraging diversity among livestock breeds -- right now, for example, beef usually comes from Angus cattle, while Holsteins are used for dairy.

"The drawback is that we end up having animals that are sometimes extremely fragile and high maintenance," Comizzoli said of the lack of diversity among the breeds. "If there is a health problem or suddenly we discover that these breeds are highly sensitive to a virus, then it puts the whole food chain in real danger."

Rare heritage breeds such as Pineywood cattle and Belted Galloway cattle are more robust, Comizzoli pointed out, and resistant to change, while Angus and Holsteins are usually raised in controlled temperature environments.

"They may be less productive than the really high performance breeds like Angus and Holstein, but they've been highly adaptable to their environments for centuries, and can really adapt to any type of environmental changes," Comizzoli said.

According to a news release, the Smithsonian's background in working with endangered species will be directed at conserving rare livestock breeds, including cattle, sheep and goats, with the help of the SVF Foundation.

Comizzoli said breeds like Angus and Holstein became so popular because they are high performance.

"Everything has been driven by yield in terms of the production of milk and meat, and breeders want to make more money with higher performance animals," he explained.

But diversity within domesticated livestock will encourage other types of biodiversity as well, he added.

"If you properly manage the land, that means you also preserve another type of biodiversity in types of plants and other animals sharing the same habitat," he said. "That's the concept of biodiversity at large, which is extremely important for sustainable life and for human beings."

The biology institute plans to renovate one of its buildings and construct a large biorepository bank where the scientific collections will be stored, as well as several laboratories where the frozen collections can be managed.

Comizzoli also said the project will likely allow them to hire more employees in order to meet the demand.

Just like the endangered species the institute studies, Comizzoli said the long-term objective is to "reintroduce" those rare heritage breeds, which means encouraging breeders and local farmers to start raising them.

Comizzoli pointed out that ensuring a lasting global food chain may be more important now than ever before.

"By 2050 we're going to have to double our food production on the planet to feed everyone, and of course, meat production is going to have to really increase," he said.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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