While current public debate centers on GMOs for dinner, the conversation may soon turn to GMO fashions. Cashmere goat herders in China are eyeing genetic engineering to keep those luxury sweaters on store shelves and to green the process too.
Using GMOs to go green is not a new concept as we’ve seen geneticists work to save the environment through gene editing before, such as to reduce methane in cow flatulence.
What is new is the attention on creating GMOs outside of food production, whether the effort is green or not. So, China is a bit of a trailblazer in creating a higher-yield GMO cashmere goat that no one plans to eat. While China only has a few of these goats in the lab right now, they have ample reasons to pursue creating them on a commercial scale.
Saving cashmere by moving it from luxury to commodity
Topping the list is a shortage of cashmere goat herders since the nomadic lifestyle has fallen out of favor and goat meat is now popular on the Chinese menu. Raising goats for meat is a far easier way to make a living. Indeed, cashmere may die out as a fabric option if enough herders stop raising them.
“Cashmere production has also taken a toll on the environment in Central Asia,” reports Sarah Zhang in her article in The Atlantic.
“Goats are destructive grazers, and their hooves destroy the root systems of grass. This double whammy has contributed to desertification in China and Mongolia.”
Producing more cashmere yield per goat means fewer goats to tear up the land and more profits for the herders who remain.
It also lends a much needed competitive edge to an otherwise profitable industry in China.
In general, China’s share in the worldwide cashmere market is taking a hit on multiple fronts. So, yes, they find it very interesting that a flip of CRISPR to disrupt a single gene increases the yield by about three ounces.
That may not seem like much until you recall that cashmere comes from an undercoat that only grows in winter and each goat only produces about a half a pound of the super fine, soft stuff.
Now you know why Cashmere sweaters cost so much!
Yes, Cashmere is relatively rare and getting rarer given all the above-mentioned challenges. Usually increased rarity means products made with the stuff is about to get much more expensive. But if GMOs can increase the availability and sustainability of cashmere, prices may go down.
Will cashmere clothing still be considered luxury items if they are suddenly plentiful and cheap? Would producers like that or not? Will producers deliberately control the volume of cashmere on the market, much like the diamond industry does, to keep prices high and thus retain luxury status?
And how does a company successfully sell cashmere harvested from GMOs? It’s a luxury product, not a food, so will consumers react differently to these products or with the same suspicion that they tend to view GMO foods?
These are but a few of the questions yet to be answered by the production and sale of GMO non-food products of all types. Soon these questions will apply to most products people use in everyday living. It'll be interesting to see how the market reacts to GMO-based goods across the board.