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By Ed Pilkington
Cloned animals and their offspring have been declared safe to eat; in a matter of months their meat will be on sale in the US. Ed Pilkington reports on a PR time bomb that's about to blow.
It is an absurdly pretty setting. A row of conifers borders snowbound fields that stretch for miles to a low horizon. Birds are nesting. Magnificent Angus cattle meander under a metallic blue sky, with the sweet smell of silage hanging over everything.
A sign nailed to one of the cattle pens provides the first clue that this picture postcard view is not as quaintly old-fashioned as it looks: "For Biosecurity: Authorised Personnel Only." The second clue comes in the form of two young red Holstein heifers, identified by ear tags as numbers 306 and 307, sitting quietly on a bed of straw. By their perfect bone structure and proportions, a breeder could tell that these are very fine animals; to me they are just absurdly pretty, like their surroundings. Their fluffy rust-red-and-white coats and pink wet noses are programmed to make you smile involuntarily. Then you notice that they are the spitting image of each other, the same white blazes running down their foreheads and the same doe-like eyes.
These are not twins, though they do have identical genetic makeup. They were created from separate embryos containing the DNA extracted from a prize-winning red Holstein cow, Miss Leader Red Rose. In short, 306 and 307 are clones.
It seems incongruous, but these two innocent-looking calves are at the centre of a public relations time bomb that is about to blow, with consequences that will be felt throughout Europe and beyond. Along with about 50 other cloned animals being held in a "bios cure" environment here at Bovance, America's largest cow-cloning company in Sioux Center, Iowa, they embody the frontline in the battle between science and consumer ethics over the way we produce food, similar in many respects to the furor that erupted over genetically modified crops.
Twelve years after the birth of the Scottish trailblazer Dolly the sheep, cloned animals are about to be cleared for use in commercial farming. Earlier this year, food regulatory authorities in America and Europe declared meat and milk derived from cloned cattle and their progeny safe to eat and drink. The same green light was given for cloned pigs and goats.
As a result, the US Food and Drug Administration has now lifted a voluntary ban on the sale of cloned food that has been in place since 1999. Farmers can freely sell the meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals, a liberty that has already led to a sharp spike in interest in Bovance's services from breeders across the US. And where America leads, others are ever quick to follow.
Only one final regulatory barrier stands in the way of firms such as Bovance seeking to inject cloning technology into commercial farming. The US agricultural department has asked for a brief extension of the ban—applicable to cloned animals alone, not their progeny—to give it time to talk to international trade partners and retailers in the hope of avoiding a consumer backlash. No one expects that hurdle to be in place for more than a few months, after which the path will be clear for the full exploitation of cloned animals for food. As Joseph Mendelson of the Centre for Food Safety puts it: "It seems to us that the floodgates are already open."
The scientists and entrepreneurs who are pushing at the frontiers of this new technology dislike the phrase cloned food, finding it too reminiscent perhaps of the scare words used by opponents to GM crops such as "Frankenfood." They prefer the phrase "agricultural genomics". But putting the obfuscations of vocabulary aside, the promise they see in cloning is quite simply stated.
In essence, cloning allows breeders to speed up the clock—to bring forward a particular trait in a herd in rapid time. Let's say a farmer discovers that one of his bulls is exceptional for its muscle development and hence meat production. The farmer wants to spread those traits right through his stock. He can put the bull to several cows each year for natural procreation, but the impact is limited by the breeding season and the dilution of the bull's DNA as it combines with the cows' inferior genetic profiles. Artificial insemination can be used to raise the number of fertilisations possible from a single elite bull, as it often is in dairy herds. But cloning has the added advantage that the animal's genetic brilliance is passed in its unaltered glory, which amplifies its effect in raising the genetic quality and hence the value of the herd. In genetic terms, cloning is to previous reproductive methods as the Blitzkrieg was to the cavalry charge.
David Faber, the head of Trans Ova Genetics, a firm in Iowa that jointly set up Bovance, says the method increases the impact of elite farm animals. "We are interested in reproducing animals that are at the peak of the genetic pyramid—they are the rock stars of the barnyard."
To see where this process of rock-star proliferation begins, I fly 1,000 miles across the Great Plains, out of the snows of Iowa and into the heat of Austin, Texas. There, in a business park on the edge of town with neatly trimmed lawns and sparkling glass buildings, I am greeted by a vision of farming's future. This is the headquarters of Viagen, Trans Ova's partner in Bovance and one of only three companies in America leading the global push towards farm cloning. (The other is Cyagra, an Argentinian-owned company based in Pennsylvania.) Whatever critics might say about this technology, no one can accuse Viagen of lacking a sense of humour. A poster of cowboys on the wall bears the appeal "Wanted: Progressive cattlemen." Another says: "Cloning is cool."
I watch Viagen's laboratory technicians carry out the various stages of cattle cloning. Tissue samples from the ears of rock-star bulls and cows from across rural America are sent to the company in temperature-controlled boxes, then chopped and placed into incubators to allow their cells to multiply before being cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen.
In another lab, Earl Hwang is displaying his great skill at working under a microscope—a 21st-century equivalent of a cowboy's dexterity with the lasso. He begins by emptying receptor eggs of their genetic content, using UV light to detect the tiny balls of DNA and suck them into a microscopic pipette. Then he inserts a single cell drawn from the tissue sample of the animal to be cloned into the genetically void egg and sets it down between the egg's outer wall and inner cytoplasm. The final stage is to pass an electric current through the egg that fuses the walls of the cells and mimics the process of fertilisation. The result: an embryo carrying the exact genetic match of its single parent. It was two such embryos created in Viagen's Texan lab that ended up as 306 and 307.
Mark Walton, Viagen's president, is unapologetic about his desire, as head of a for-profit company, to make money out of cloned farm animals. He puts the firm's investment so far at "multiple tens of millions of dollars", though he admits that, to date, the payback has been very limited. The voluntary ban placed on the cloning industry has until now demoted the use of the technology to the ranks of a minority sport. While 33 million beef cattle are slaughtered in America each year, the country only has 570 cloned cattleCounting Animals Killed To Be Foodhttp://sfvegan.org/countergen.html —and 10 cloned horses, eight pigs, five African wildcats, three mules and a cloned sand cat.
But Walton is confident that the lean years are coming to an end. His order book is full for the rest of the year, and once the final barrier is lifted he thinks demand will flow. "The genetics from cloned animals could certainly spread pretty broadly and pretty quickly once the market opens and is accepted."
Walton believes the value of cloning is not just economic—to boost the performance of meat animals and thus their value. He also claims that the technology has a definite green potential in that it can increase the food efficiency of the herd, by bringing to the fore animals who require less feeding and produce less waste, thus reducing their environmental footprint.
More radically, he cites scientists in Canada who have created an "enviro pig" by inserting the gene phytase into its genome, which makes the pig excrete less phosphate—a major agricultural pollutant. The enviro pig came about through gene manipulation, but if combined with cloning, its green potential could be maximised. Walton gives another example from New Zealand: "A dairy cow was discovered by accident that naturally produces lower-fat milk that has some omega-3 fatty acids in it. Wow, that's really cool. But what can you do with just one cow? With cloning you could make something of it."
What he doesn't expect to see is cloned beef burgers landing on American dinner plates any time soon. At $17,000 (£8,500) a cloned calf, compared with $1,500 for a naturally conceived animal, it would be far too expensive to replicate the rock stars of the farmyard only to butcher them. Milk is likely to be a different story, as even elite cloned cows need milking. And the offspring of cloned animals are certain to enter the US food chain soon, and in rapidly growing numbers.
In fact, they already have. Don Coover in Kansas has been selling up to 20,000 units of sperm from each of his two cloned bulls every year for several years. "That's thousands and thousands of cloned progeny. A lot of people, myself included, got impatient with the regulators for dragging their feet and we chose not to abide by the voluntary moratorium," he says.
Coover's trade in the sperm of cloned bulls suggests that the ban has already begun to break down, and that in turn has set alarm bells ringing among a powerful alliance of consumer groups, churches, animal welfare and other bodies that are staunchly against the advent of the new technology.
The Centre for Food Safety, a leading opponent, bases its position on a range of detailed scientific criticisms combined with wider ethical objections. It points out that the failure rate of cloning is still substantially higher than other reproductive methods - it can be as low as 5% of the embryos implanted. There is also a greater incidence of problems at birth, such as Large Offspring Syndrome, in which oversized foetuses develop in the womb that can cause suffering and even death for both mother and calf.
CFS is unimpressed by official assurances that cloned food is safe, arguing that there is insufficient scientific evidence to be certain about its long-term prospects. The organisation poses a series of what-if questions: what if defects or mutations in clones remain hidden and undetectable but are found to be dangerous to humans down the line? What if those defects can be passed on to the progeny of clones, thereby disseminating them throughout the nation's livestock?
And finally CFS warns that the impact of cloning will tend towards a further reduction in biodiversity through the promotion of genetically identical herds, which in turn could put both animals and humans at risk of disease epidemics. It wants to see the labelling of any products coming from either clones or their offspring, a demand that US authorities have deflected.
Viagen has an answer to each of these forebodings. The success rate of cloning is improving all the time, bringing down costs and ameliorating animal suffering. The progeny of clones are not clones at all, but normal animals created from two parents; and any irregularities in the expression of cloned genes are ironed out, or "reset", in their offspring. As for the string of what-if questions, Walton dismisses that as scaremongering: "That is applying the precautionary principle, and the fallacy of that, as any beginners' statistics class will teach you, is that it is impossible to prove a negative. As a scientist, I absolutely reject it."
With such arguments swirling back and forth, the reaction of the big supermarkets that could so easily be caught in the middle has so far been understandably cautious. Wal-Mart, the world's largest supermarket chain, says, somewhat ambiguously, that it has no plans to buy products from cloned livestock. The second largest US chain, Kroger, is more categorical, pledging to shun products from clones or their offspring.
As for the great American public, confusion reigns. Surveys suggest that knowledge levels are pitifully low, while suspicions abound about a technique that many regard as weird or unnatural. A poll last December by the Washington-based Pew Initiative found that despite the overwhelming conclusion from scientists that cloning poses no safety risks to humans, two-thirds of Americans remained "uncomfortable" with the idea.
You get a feel for what beef means to the average American when you visit a famous old Texan barbeque shack, Iron Works, in the centre of Austin. There they serve beef ribs that look as though they have been carved from giants. The gargantuan cuts are dripping in BBQ sauce with meat that is so succulent and tender that it really does melt in the mouth.
At a table at the back, Cynthia (she asked not to give her surname) is just finishing off her plate, and as she does so she tells me her views, which touch on several of those wider public apprehensions. She is reserving judgment on cloned food because she doesn't know enough about it, she says, but then she goes on to reveal that she fears it will lead to less genetic diversity and a downward spiral. "We are sterilising the Earth and that's very dangerous. Mother nature has been taking care of reproduction for thousands of years, so why do it? I can understand if it's to find a cure for an illness, but to create these huge slabs of meat?"
If the GM crop row is anything to go by, the consumer reaction in Britain is likely to be considerably more hostile even than in the US. Last month the first public auction in the UK of the progeny of a cloned cow had to be cancelled in the face of protests. Dundee Paradis—the offspring of a Holstein clone called Vandyk-K Integ Paradise 2—was withdrawn from sale, although the auction was fully legal under EU law.
Bob Schauf, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who owns a cloned cow called Mandy2, has firsthand experience of the British aversion. He made a business plan with a partner in the UK to sell eggs flushed from a cloned cow for artificial insemination. But his partner called him to say the deal was off. "He sounded like a puppy that had just been spanked," Schauf recalls. "He said that the UK didn't want the cloned cow over there; nobody wants any of this. He was very disappointed."
Sir Ian Wilmut, who fronted the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, thinks that Britain's strong emphasis on animal welfare will prove a formidable hurdle for the cloning industry. The high incidence of problems at birth with cloned animals is likely to turn consumers off. "It wouldn't be deemed acceptable to produce elite animals whose benefit over the rest of the herd were small and the risks of their creation large," he says.
But it is by no means certain that the gradual dissemination of genetic material produced by cloning can be prevented, or even monitored. Though Viagen is proposing a database to record the whereabouts of all its cloned farm animals, neither it nor anybody else is contemplating tracking what happens to the offspringa task that would be prohibitively expensive, were it even possible.
GM crops had a similar trajectory. Transgenic crops—that is those whose makeup has been altered through the transfer of genes from other breeds—have now spread through the US like a spider's web. About 90% of the soya bean crop and 80% of corn is now transgenic, while about a half of all cheese consumed is made with enzymes produced by genetically modified bacteria. Those are statistics that give Viagen's Walton added hope that consumer resistance to cloning will now similarly be overcome: "There's not a consumer in America today who doesn't end up buying some transgenic food," he says. "So the fact is that what people tell you in the polls and what they actually do in the supermarket are two very different things".
How cattle are cloned:
1. Cells from the ears of rock-star bulls and cows are placed under a microscope at ViaGen's offices in Austin, Texas
2. The tiny balls of DNA are detected using UV light
3. The DNA is removed from the nucleus of the cell using a microscopic pipette
4. Cloned cells are stored
5. Embryos created from the cloned cells are frozen at Bovance in Iowa
6. A cow is placed in a stall to receive a cloned embryo
7. The embryo is implanted
8. The result...cloned heifers
Originally published in The Guardian Online, April 2008.
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