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It is now possible to clone animals and make a variety of valuable products from them, including staples like meat and milk. But, as is so often the case with technological innovations, the urgent question is not necessarily: “Can we do this?” but “how should we do that?” To provide an answer, we need to examine the sustainability and safety of the technology and, of course, how the public might react to all of its uses.
Before we get too far into the weeds, let’s dig into the basics. Cloning is one way of making copies of animals in an asexual way, and it can be achieved in two possible ways (Canada, 2003). The first technique uses embryonic cells; Animal products and by-products made this way are allowed in the human food supply chain (Canada, 2003) and are widely used in the manufacture of many foods that humans consume (Miller, 2007). More recently, a second technique known as nuclear somatic transfer (SCNT) has been developed (Canada, 2003). She gave us Dolly the sheep and sparked a debate about the use (and possible abuse) of cloning technology. Products and by-products from these animals are not allowed in the human food supply chain (Canada, 2003).
This process of cloning is more complicated than the first technique, as indicated in the Canadian Food Agency’s interim guideline for food from cloned animals. Miller explains that cloning technology is another tool that biologists and animal breeders can use to make food more consistent, nutritious, and palatable (2007). According to Plume, 2.4 million Angus cattle were registered and of those 2.4 million, 56 were clones (2009). If clones are made and able to provide useful benefits to many different industries, why is one technique acceptable and the other not?
A question of sustainability
Cloning is an alternative method of making animals for human consumption. According to the Genetic Science Learning Center (2014), it can be used in medicine to revive endangered species and help the producer improve their herd’s genetics. For example, cloning can increase an animal’s feed efficiency; That’s huge for the producer (Plume, 2009). Cloning of the quantitative trait species in the animal population is possible and can be of great benefit in farm animals (Harlizius, 2004). Cloned animals can be more fertile, resist certain diseases, and produce more products that we use. (Harlizius, 2004). However, cloning is not the most efficient way to produce livestock (Smith, 2000).
Dolly, the world’s first clone of its kind. Photo credit: Reuters
Harlizius also stated that the health and longevity of these animals can be compromised (2004), which is a major expense for the producer. Currently, cloning has a 10% success rate (Howard, 2016), and cloning a cow costs about $ 15,000 on average and cloning a pig about $ 4,000 (Plume, 2009). Although there are great benefits associated with cloning, it is expensive and the success rates are low, suggesting that it is unsustainable compared to traditional practices at this point in time. In addition, this calculation does not include the costs of raising the animal. If you were to buy conventional livestock it would cost an average of between $ 2,000 and $ 5,000 per capita, then another $ 556 to raise each animal (Griffith, 2019). Fortunately, as the cloning efficiency increases, the price is expected to decrease (Plume, 2009). However, this leads to another important question.
Should we eat animals cloned by SCNT?
The main problem with food safety in SCNT clones is: Does the nuclear reprogramming that occurs during the cloning process affect the composition of the food derived from the animals (Eenennaam, 2006)? In various studies, SCNT animals were compared with non-cloned animals and the biological and biochemical properties of meat and milk were assessed. The results showed that the product compositions were all within the normal range of the food industry (Yang 2007). Yang suggested that differences in the products could be due to the breed, the food, the season and the timing of the animals in the lactation phase (2007). What is of concern, however, is that cloned beef calves have health problems such as fatty liver, cardiovascular failure and immature lungs. In one study, a cloned animal died of immunodeficiency (Yang, 2007). Dolly, the sheep, the first animal cloned by SCNT, lived healthy for six years (Feltman, 2019), although she did not live as long as expected.
Will consumers come on board?
Cloned animals could perform all sorts of important functions, such as making proteins that are used in the development of human medicines (Eenennaam, 2006). Eenennaam also discussed a company that was able to make spider silk proteins in milk from genetically engineered goats (2006). These proteins could be used to make BioSteel, which has important industrial and military uses (Eenennaam, 2006). However, the public’s response to such innovations would likely be the determining factor in their success. And certain sectors of the food industry fear that consumers may reject the products and by-products of cloned animals (2007). Given these concerns, studies have not provided sufficient evidence that SCNT animal clones are safe for human consumption (Canada, 2003).
Cloning has enormous potential. Livestock breeders could produce the caliber of cattle they are looking for while avoiding the uncertainty associated with breeding while increasing the quality and quantity of their supply. As we have seen, other industries would benefit from this progress as well. However, due to the low success rate and the high price, cloning is currently not a sustainable tool. The uncertainty surrounding SCNT-cloned animals will keep their products and by-products out of the human supply chain until further research can resolve these issues.
Canada, health. “Government of Canada.” Canada.ca, October 6, 2003, www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/legislation-guidelines/policies/food-directorate-interim-policy-foods-cloned-animals.html.
Eenennaam, Alison L. Van. “What is the future of animal biotechnology?” 2006. California Agriculture, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 132-139., Doi: 10.3733 / ca.v060n03p132.
Feltman, Rachel. “Dolly the sheep died young – but her clones appear to be perfectly healthy by the time they turn 9.” April 29, 2019, The Washington Post, WP Company, www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/07/26/dolly-the-sheep-died-young-but-her-clones- seem-perfectly-healthy-as-they-will-9 /.
Genetic learning center. “Why clone?” July 10, 2014. Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/cloning/whyclone/
Griffith, Andrew. “Livestock Prices and Profitability in 2019.” Dovers, January 2, 2019, www.drovers.com/article/cattle-prices-and-profitability-2019.
Harlizius, Barbara, van Wijk, Rik and Merks, Jan. “Genomics for Food Safety and Sustainable Animal Production.” September 30, 2004. Journal of Biotechnology
Howard, Lisa. “Cow gene study shows why most clones fail.” UC Davis, December 15, 2016, www.ucdavis.edu/news/cow-gene-study-shows-why-most-clones-fail/.
Illmensee, Karl & Levanduski, Mike. (2010). “Split embryo.” Journal of the Fertility Society of the Middle East. 15. 57-63.
Miller, Henry I. “Food from cloned animals is part of our brave old world.” Trends in Biotechnology, vol. 25, no. 5, 2007, pp. 201-203., Doi: 10.1016 / j.tibtech.2007.03.005.
Feder, Karl. “Welcome to the clone farm.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, November 13, 2009, www.reuters.com/article/us-food-cloning-idUSTRE5AC07V20091113.
Smith, LC et al. “Advantages and Problems of Cloning Animals.” (2000) The Canadian veterinary journal La revue veterinaire canadienne vol. 41.12: 919- 24
Yang, Xiangzhong, et al. “Risk assessment of meat and milk from cloned animals.” (2007) Nature Biotechnology, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 77-83., Doi: 10.1038 / nbt1276.
Shelby Robinson grew up on a ranch east of a very small town called Lake Alma in southern Saskatchewan. She is currently in her third year of an animal science degree.
A version of this article was originally published on SAIFood and republished here with permission. You can find SAIFood on Twitter @SAIFood_blog