CryptocurrencyLeadershipInvestingClimate ChangeMost Powerful Women

The big bull backup

September 19, 2013, 11:42 AM UTC
Germ plasm samples (semen, embryos, tissue) stored in vats of liquid nitrogen the size of tubs at a soup kitchen
Photo: Floto & Warner

In a Colorado warehouse, 413,322 straws of bull semen, 3,913 chicken testes and ovaries, and the reproductive assets of thousands of fish are cryogenically frozen in steel vats of liquid nitrogen. They are kept there for the national security of the meat we eat.

The facility is part of the National Animal Germplasm Program, created in 1999 to function as a sort of backup hard drive for the nation’s livestock. Some 780,000 vials of reproductive samples are ready to be unfrozen in case of emergency. What kind of emergency? Believe it or not, much of the world’s livestock is teetering on the brink — the genetic demands of large-scale breeding have marginalized some breeds so much that 20% are at risk of extinction. If that problem intensified or if disease wiped out a large swath of Holsteins, it could be disastrous. Harvey Blackburn, a geneticist, says the U.S. government began wondering if the fragile nature of our cows and chickens might pose a real security threat.

The repository, which Blackburn oversees, can restart a breed if hoof and mouth were to, say, kill all Holsteins. It also functions as a historical archive of genetic material, with sperm from rare bulls or famous breeders, like Elevation, a prolific bull famous for siring some 80,000 cows. The program is also obligated by law to supply farmers and scientists with its wares and has given out about 15,000 samples so far, mostly for research.

Beyond research, however, artificial insemination is a big business. Roughly 80% of dairy cattle in the U.S. are bred via unnatural means. In pigs the rate is even greater, says Denny Funk, chief scientific officer of Genus, a British biotech company. Genus’s cattle-breeding division brought in $266 million in revenue last year. That division, which was originally founded by the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, J. Rockefeller Prentice, sells semen in 70 countries and has donated some of its reserves to Blackburn. It’s now stored in vats along with donations from more than 3,000 other breeders and producers, and Blackburn is soliciting more, including rare varieties and some on the verge of extinction. “It’s a valuable museum of genetics that have been used in the industry for 50 years,” Funk says. “As long as you don’t use up all of the museum.” A bull’s work is never done.

This story is from the October 07, 2013 issue of Fortune.