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Latest farm debate: genetic modification vs cattle cloning

Last month’s post, “Dolly’s sister sheep clones reveal new insights and options,” became more relevant faster than expected given this month’s news on a rancher who is now cloning cattle. His is a quest to consistently roll out USDA “Prime” and “Yield Grade One” rated carcasses. It’s an interesting story leading to the ultimate question in farming: how much genetic fiddling is profitable and how much is overkill?

Ty Lawrence, a professor of meat science at West Texas A&M University, really wants to produce a lot of prime beef. It occurred to him that cloning cattle that had been awarded the coveted USDA ratings would be a sure way to hit the mark with every animal.

However, Ty wasn’t interested in just running a clone factory. Instead, his plan was to breed the clones and thus raise a perfect herd in the usual way.

To get his plan rolling, he first put together a research team at his university. The team then located one steer and one cow carcass that met the grade requirements and commenced the cloning work. The result was a cloned bull named Alpha and three cloned heifers named Gamma One, Gamma Two, and Gamma Three. Normal farm artificial insemination was deployed, and soon there were thirteen newly born, perfect calves.

Seven of those were raised in the conventional way and then slaughtered. They were all steers.

The point of this exercise was to see if this plan could bring a greater return for ranchers. But Lawrence also thinks there are more benefits to be had from this approach than just perfectly marbled meat.

“We may be selecting for better immune systems,” he said in an interview with Capital Press. “For an animal to be Prime and Yield Grade One simultaneously, it’s probably had no or very few bad days in its life. So are we selecting for (good health)?”

“We’re moving the curve to higher quality and higher yield at the same time,” he said. “I think it’s very viable for the beef industry to find traits that are desirable and to propagate those.”

Critics say that this method of cloning to breeding misses the overall mark.

“My first take is that it’s a lot of work for little gain,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. in that same Capital Press article.

“At the end of the day, it’s whether a farmer can produce a high-quality product that the customer wants, at a price that will keep them in business.”

Given past consumer reactions to cloning, most in the industry think consumers would seriously balk at consuming meat from cloned animals. But that may not be the case given the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved cloned animal meat and milk for human consumption in 2008 and does not require it labeled as such. How then, would consumers even know?

The answer to that lies in a new technology rather than in traditional food labels. Blockchain technology, a distributed ledger first brought into practice by the digital currency Bitcoin is poised to track food assets from farm to table.  

Soon consumers will be able to see how and where food was raised; whether animals and workers were treated humanely; how many vaccines, antibiotics or pesticides were applied; how the food was slaughtered or harvested; how it was shipped and at what temperatures; how it was packaged; how long it was kept in the store; and, much more. 

They’ll be able to do this with a phone or tablet app by scanning the food label in the store. The apps will be connected to public blockchains, each of which is a complete accounting of that food’s journey to the consumer. Blockchains cannot be altered or manipulated so the info is trustworthy.

So, yes, despite attempts to avoid labeling genetically modified or cloned foods in stores, consumers will soon be able to see all that information anyway.

The question then becomes whether cloning is worth it given the additional costs and the potential of consumer rejection? Or is it enough – and perhaps a safer bet for ranchers – to continue with genetic modifications as they are currently used?

The answer to that is likely to rest on market demands.

“If our primary request was for more marbling in our meat, we might look into the ethics behind cloning or research the technology, but no one asks for that,” said Cory Carman, a Northeast Oregon cattle rancher who sells grass-fed beef to high-end markets, in the Capital Press article.

“Marbling isn’t the primary driver of meat quality for us.”

Meanwhile, China said just a few months ago that it will clone one million cattle a year. Could that exert enough market pressure for ranchers elsewhere to follow suit?

As the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland would say, the future of farming and ranching gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

I guess we’ll have to wait and see where consumer attitudes and ag science take us in the search for more and better food to offset future famine. 

Latest farm debate: genetic modification vs cattle cloning

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