Meet the cloned cash cow - coming soon to a farmyard near you
Replica DNA developed in US will arouse anger if sold in Europe
Suzanne Goldenberg in Williamsport, Maryland, and James Meek
Saturday November 16, 2002
Genesis has her head stuck in a bale of hay on Greg Wiles's farm. She has the same large glossy body as her mother, Zita, once the reigning queen of American dairy cattle, and Zita's trademark white triangle patch on her forehead.
Actually, Genesis is Zita, or her genetic double. The black and white Holstein heifer, now nearly two, is a clone, an exact DNA replica conjured from the cells of Zita's ear. When she comes of age, her owner, Mr Wiles, hopes she will also prove as much of a cash cow. Zita produced 40,000lbs of milk a year.
That prize-winning DNA could soon be for sale. In the milking shed on Mr Wiles's farm, nine embryos harvested from Genesis are growing inside the wombs of surrogate mothers of lesser genetic stock. By the time these calves take their first wobbly steps around Futuraland 2020, Mr Wiles's farm, the US government is expected to have issued draft guidelines for the sale of barnyard clones and their products: milk, meat, and offspring.
The US food and drug agency could rule as early as January 1, as regulators bow to pressure from farmers and the powerful agro-cloning lobby and drop the voluntary moratorium on the sale of genetic material from clones. The new guidelines are widely expected to be liberal, opening the door to commercial exploitation of farmyard clones.
That means that within a year to 18 months, milk from cloned calves and their natural-born offspring could be on the American breakfast table, and there may be no requirement for producers to label it any differently from conventional milk.
Genesis, and another cloned heifer on Mr Wiles's land, are part of a community of farmyard clones in the US of well over 1,000 cattle, pigs and goats (there is a single cat, but that's a different story). Within America they have generated relatively little attention, as have GM foods, which are largely unregulated.
But Mr Wiles could be surprised by the reaction if he seeks to sell his cloned embryos abroad. He has clients in the Netherlands and Japan - and in Britain. Although the advent of clones has been greeted with relative equanimity in America by scientists and regulators, the import of semen and embryos from clones is likely to arouse deep suspicion in Europe. On this side of the Atlantic, people's views of the agricultural industry are still informed by GM foods and BSE.
"You would be putting semen from a cloned animal into the food chain when you don't really know what its second, third and fourth generation progeny are going to be like. We took the view it was far too risky a thing to do," said Richard Wood, chief executive of the world's largest cattle breeding company, the Cheshire-based Genus. "We think it is totally irresponsible for any farmer or any other company to sell commercial semen from clones at this stage."
But such qualms must be pitted against market pressures. The trade in cattle semen and eggs between Europe and America and Canada is about $100m (£63m) a year, and there is high demand in Britain for imported bull semen for artificial insemination. In the wake of BSE and foot and mouth disease, British farmers are restocking. Are clones going to be on their shopping list?
In September, hoping to save the government from being taken by surprise as it was over the GM crops debacle, Britain's agriculture and environment biotechnology commission, an advisory body, called for changes to the law to prepare for the advent of biotech animals, including farmyard clones. The government has yet to respond, and there is no law to prevent the import of semen from cloned stud bulls.
The high cost of the scientific procedure, together with the fear of public hostility across Europe, means that milk or meat derived directly from clones is unlikely to reach Europe in the near future. "Right now if you are going to produce hamburgers from our clones, it would cost $100 each," said Ron Gillespie of Cyagra, the company which cloned Genesis and the leading commercial producer of barnyard clones in the US.
What will be on offer to Europe will be the genetic material from the clones of prize animals like Zita, and the further distribution of that DNA into conventional herds. Mr Wiles said he was confident British farmers would find the prospect of replicating such high yielders irresistible, despite the anxiety prevalent across Europe about tampering with nature. "In two or three years a farmer in England could be working with a member of the Zita family."
How safe would that be? Meat and milk from cloned animals are not thought to be any different from conventional dairy and beef products: they are not genetically modified. But Rudolf Jaenisch, a leading cloning researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his studies of cloned mice had convinced him clones are doomed to be unhealthy. "Problems appeared when cloned mice were 15 months old," he said. "You would have to wait 15 years to see it in bulls."
In the US, scientific opinion is on the side of the clones. The most authoritative study, by the National Academy of Sciences, published in August, found no significant differences between the products of naturally created animals and clones.Clones, which are supposed to be exact replicas, look set to receive the FDA's approval.
"We gave low to no concern to the products of cloned animals," said Dr John Vandenburgh, professor of zoology at North Carolina State University, and the leader of the study. "If an animal like a cow has been cloned or transgenically modified and then used to breed other cows, we found no basis for concern for food produced from those animals."
The FDA is unlikely to focus on concerns about animal welfare. Clones tend to be oversized, which presents pregnancy and birth complications. Cloned cattle can also have squashed faces, diabetes, and more subtle defects.
However, officials believe cloning does not immediately appear to cause any more harm to animals than IVF and embryo transfer. "If the animals are born healthy and grow normally into animals, that would be the indication that the welfare of animals has not been adversely impacted," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the Centre for Veterinary Medicine of the FDA.
Again, the picture looks very different in Britain. "The issues are to do with our relationship with animals and animal welfare. We think some of these concerns would be very widely felt in the UK," said Sue Mayer, of the independent biotech watchdog GeneWatch UK.
The Cyagra company is meanwhile busily planning the third generation of clones. The goal: to create a single-sex bull. That is, an animal capable of siring only female, or only male, offspring. Mr Gillespie says it will be in US barnyards within two years.
For him, the argument has already been won. "Within the circles where we are working the discussion has shifted," he said. "Farmers aren't concerned any more with asking whether this is going to be normal. Now they are saying, 'How much more can I get out of this animal?'"
Ethics of genetics
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990
The human reproductive cloning bill (pdf file)
18.01.2002: Human cloning
Stem cell research
Human cloning: how it might be done
The human genome
Human cloning in links
Human fertilisation and embryology authority
Chief medical officer's advisory group on human cloning
Current patents list (pdf)
Human genome project
Pro Life Alliance