Animal cloning technology has been a controversial topic for more than 20 years, and the controversy could be on the verge of escalating to new heights. The world’s biggest cloning center will reportedly open in China next year and expectations are that it will produce one million cattle annually by 2020.
Beef demand in China is soaring and it’s been reported meat prices tripled between 2000 and 2013. Citing the environmental implications of adding a million cattle per year to Chinese production, the science commentator for the Financial Times said, “While the rest of us are being urged to temper our whims to protect the planet’s thermostat, the Chinese are determined to have their steak and eat it.”
The chairman of the biotechnology company heading up the project says the development will edge cloning science closer to mainstream acceptance. Asked about the ban on cloned animals adopted by the EU just weeks ago, the chairman answered, “Was this ban based on scientific rationale or ethical rationale or political agenda? Legislation is always behind science. But in the area of cloning, I think we are going the wrong way and starting to kill the technology.”
Noting the Food and Drug Administration’s eight-year-old ruling that food products derived from cloned animals are safe enough to enter the U.S. and that labeling is not required because food products from cloned animals are not materially different, an article at Fortune.com (@FortuneMagazine has 1.9 million Twitter followers) says, “there could be backlash from consumers if these products reach the U.S., especially considering that genetically modified foods have been such a hot button issue.”
One could easily conclude that “there could be backlash” is a big understatement.
The fact is, cloning animals is nothing new in the U.S. Case in point, a Yahoo! News article last summer told of an Iowa company producing 100 cloned cows a year along with an undisclosed number of pigs and horses. On the idea of tracking these animals, a company spokesman said there are thousands of cloned animals globally and their offspring and descendants will multiply every year. “It would be next to impossible to go backwards,” he said.
When the biotech industry tried to reassure people that GMOs are safe because they had been in food for two decades with no reports of illness, it didn’t work. Consumers were indignant they didn’t know about it sooner. Meat from cloned animals or their progeny carries the same potential to spark social outrage.
Science tells us cloning technology allows the preservation of desirable animal characteristics such as leaner meat, higher milk production and disease resistance. It can also boost the production of animal protein to meet growing demand. In addition to questions about environmental impact, cloning also raises ethical concerns because it deviates from normal reproduction that combines genetic material from two parents. A growing number of consumers are already wary of today’s farming technology. Producing food animals from laboratories has high potential for adding another layer of skepticism.
Science tells us if we can do something. Society tells us if we should. Using scientific justification to answer society’s questions about cloning won’t work.
We know that consumers are increasingly interested in food and skeptical of the use of some technology in food production. Research proves that shared values and increased transparency are the foundation for building trust. Animal agriculture needs to carefully consider how best to engage consumers and develop trust for evolving technology, including cloning, to maintain social license.