Thursday, Jun 29, 2017, 5:02 AM CST – China

Society

Cloned Meat

Sci-fi No More

Some scientists say cloned meat is the answer to Chinese consumers’ voracious appetite for beef, but safety concerns and high costs remain two major hurdles they need to overcome before cloned beef will grace the dinner table

Hwang Woo-suk introduces the world’s first cloned canine, a dog which he named “Snuppy” Photo by Xinhua

In his own words, Xu Xiaochun is a “high-tech butcher.” In November 2015, the biologist’s company, Boyalife Group, unveiled plans to construct the world’s biggest animal cloning factory in Tianjin. It will start out producing about 100,000 cloned cow embryos every year, with a goal of reaching one million annually by 2020.

For each one, a scientist will take a non-reproductive cell from a donor animal, inject that cell’s nucleus into another cow’s egg cell that has already had its DNA-filled nucleus removed, and then implant the altered egg cell into the uterus of a surrogate animal. The newly born calf will be the donor animal’s genetic identical. “Cloning is duplication, just as the Monkey King turns one of his own hairs into 200 monkeys,” Xu explained, referring to the renowned Chinese folk hero. According to Xu, it is just a matter of time before Boyalife brings cloned beef to grocery store aisles.

As cloned meat has never been commercialized before, Boyalife’s cloning factory has caused a stir in scientific circles. Many questioned its feasibility, given cloning’s high rate of failure, while others expressed concerns over the safety of eating cloned beef, especially when China has not yet enacted legislation regulating cloned food products.

‘Meat’-ing Demand

According to Xu, Boyalife’s grand plan was based on the country’s high demand for beef. China produced 6.7 million tons of beef in 2013, 31.2 percent more than in the year 2000, while local demand for beef grew by 60.3 percent over that same period. Gao Guan, deputy secretary-general of China Meat Association, told the media in 2014 that for the past two years, China has faced a two-million-ton shortage of beef and lamb each year, and that demand just keeps rising.

The dearth of meat is exacerbated by the fact that Chinese farmers raise such varied breeds of cattle. Steep demand for high-quality meat cannot be sated with low-quality cuts. Despite 30 years of crossbreeding, China cannot keep pace with the market’s clamor for high-end beef. “It takes over 10 years to breed good-quality cattle, while cloning shortens that time to one year,” Xu told NewsChina. If he is right, cloning could solve a problem that has troubled scientists for decades.

Boyalife’s cloning factory is currently 80 percent complete and has yet to be opened to the public, but Xu has already revealed that the company’s first move will be to dominate the high-end beef market. Once finished, the cloning factory will not only possess the world’s largest clone production line, it will also house the world’s highest-standard cloning center, a biodiverse gene repository and an exhibition center for science education. Besides cloned beef, the factory will also clone drug-sniffing dogs and racehorses.

“Boyalife is not merely an exhibition hall or a laboratory – that is too ordinary,” Xu said. “We aim to do something extraordinary... Boyalife is the future, as cloning itself is a futuristic technology.”

Xu’s father is Xu Zhihong, a former Peking University president and academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xu junior said that his father hoped that he would use technology to give back to society by helping improve cattle breeding in China.

Doubts

Many Chinese scientists, however, are taking Xu’s words with a giant grain of salt. Some doubt the feasibility of cloned beef and regard the future factory with skepticism. “It makes sense to use cloning technology to improve breeds on a small scale… but it would be hard to commercialize them,” said Dai Yunping, a China Agricultural University biologist who participated in China’s first cow-cloning research project. One major problem is cloned animals’ low rate of survival. “If a normal cow fetus makes it two months [through the nine-month pregnancy], there is little chance of a miscarriage,” he told NewsChina. “But a cloned fetus faces a high risk of miscarriage throughout the entire pregnancy.”

Chen Dayuan, who was part of the team that bred China’s first cloned cow, Weiwei, in 2002, echoed this sentiment. “We cloned 14 cattle at that time, only five of which survived,” he told NewsChina. Chen later performed tests on the animals that died and found that all of them were born with developmental defects in their chests, lungs or kidneys.

Although the world-famous sheep Dolly, the first successfully cloned mammal, lived for more than six years, her relative longevity still remains the exception that proves the rule. It took British biologist Ian Wilmut 277 tries before Dolly was born, a success rate of around 0.36 percent. Even Wilmut termed Dolly’s birth “a miracle.” Two years before China bred Weiwei, Japan had successfully cloned 121 cattle, yet almost half of them died due to health problems similar to those Chen found through his tests. Unlike animals that are born naturally, cloned fetuses develop from a cell foreign to the mother, which leads to high instability.

Many media reports once misreported Boyalife’s objective of producing one million cloned embryos every year as producing one million cloned animals every year, a tweak which makes a world of difference. Irina Polejaeva, an associate professor in the veterinary sciences department at Utah State University, told Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly that of the one million bovine embryos, about 30 percent will develop into embryo sacs, and 5-10 percent of those will ultimately develop into cows. Based on this ratio, which Polejaeva described as “optimistic,” one million bovine embryos would produce only 15,000 to 30,000 cattle, despite the high production cost.

“Agriculture is not limited to laboratory tests,” a Chinese biologist who has participated in cow cloning told Southern Weekly. “We have to consider a lot of practical things. If Boyalife realizes its initial objective, say, 100,000 cow embryos, it needs at least 200,000 high-quality cows for breeding, a number we could not reach even though we had access to all of the cows in Beijing, [neighboring municipality] Tianjin and Hebei Province.”

Given that China has imported many high-quality bulls and quickened the crossbreeding process through a method that stimulates ovulation, many interviewed scientists believed that cloned cattle, at an estimated 200,000 yuan (US$31,000) a head, do not give nearly enough bang for their buck.

Xu, however, argued that cost will be largely reduced when production scales up. “The fact that other scientists around the world have no way [to increase clones’ survival rate] does not mean that we at Boyalife don’t, either,” he said. “I believe that Boyalife’s technology is mature enough to be commercialized, even though many other ‘pioneers’ have fallen before us.”

Partnership

Xu’s strong confidence in Boyalife’s technology may come from his business partner Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean biologist who bred the world’s first cloned cow in 1999. Hwang later fell from grace after his claims that he had successfully extracted stem cells from cloned human embryos were proven in 2005 to have been fabricated. After being expelled by Seoul National University and defunded by the government, he turned his focus to animal cloning instead. Besides cloning cows, Hwang’s institute, Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, is cloning police dogs and endangered animals, now at the South Korean government’s request.

“We possess the world’s most advanced cloning technology, and China is an ideal place for research, given its vast area and geographic diversity,” he said.

Overtaking China’s animal husbandry industry is only a small part of Hwang’s plan. He explained his full ambitions to NewsChina: “We will launch many other projects in China… We will utilize our advanced bioengineering technology and leading model for commercialization to create high-quality biotechnology products that are most trusted by consumers, and then distribute them all over the world.”

Before coming to Tianjin, Hwang told South Korean media that China had a looser regulatory environment for his biotech research projects and his objective is not merely “to make a profit,” but “to be remembered by history.”

According to Southern Weekly, the local government of Tianjin felt reluctant to cooperate with Boyalife until Xu and Hwang led officials and engineers around the company’s cloning factory. It probably didn’t hurt that Tianjin is trying to bill itself as a center for stem cell research, an area of study that has previously been a focus of Boyalife’s and is also both Xu’s and Hwang’s strength.

Despite the academic fraud, Hwang’s cloning technology prowess is acknowledged worldwide. In addition to initial cattle cloning, he took the lead in breeding a cow that was resistant to mad cow disease in 2003 and also was the first to clone a dog in 2005. He informed the Tianjin government that South Korea had already permitted him to commercialize cloned police dogs, offering the city further reassurance that the factory was a good idea.

Food Safety

Cloning animals is one thing, but cloning them for consumption is another, especially in a country where food safety is a top concern. Since Dolly the Sheep came down with a serious case of pneumonia and had to be euthanized at age six, discussions over the health of cloned animals have never ceased. The UK’s Food Standards Agency, for example, came under fierce fire after local media exposed that beef from a cow cloned in the US “accidentally” entered the British market in 2009.

Xu, however, said that he had eaten cloned beef before and it had an excellent flavor. “Cloning does not change anything in physiological function or structure, so cloned beef is no different from ordinary meat,” he said, emphasizing that cloned vegetables are now used worldwide, and cloned meat will be, too.

In 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would permit the sale of cloned animals’ milk and meat products, saying that there is no difference between clones and naturally born animals and that people cannot distinguish between the two. Previously, Japanese scientists had reached a similar conclusion after tracking 171 cloned cattle and the descendants of another 32 cloned cattle.

The EU, however, has held a very cautious attitude toward food products from cloned animals. Last August, the EU passed a bill that forbid the import and sale of cloned meat, saying that the descendants of cloned animals have a higher-than-average rate of health issues.

“If China produces high-end cloned beef on a large scale, it will surely impact the European beef market, which I think is the true reason behind the EU’s ban,” Xu said.

China Meat Association director Li Shuilong, however, disagrees. He told Economy & Nation Weekly, a magazine under State-operated Xinhua News Agency, that all consumables should undergo repeated testing to assess whether they could lead to cancer or birth defects, testing which may not produce reliably comprehensive results for another 30 to 50 years. Therefore, it is far too early to say that cloned food items are safe.

 A larger concern is that China has yet to issue any regulations or laws governing cloned animals and food. The fact that cloning technology has huge commercial potential just adds to the urgency for legislation, said China Agricultural University professor Zhu Zheng’en, adding: “We need to accelerate the completion of these laws.” According to Economy & Nation Weekly, Boyalife has not yet obtained an official license from China’s Ministry of Agriculture to produce and sell cloned beef, dimming the potentially bright future of the controversial cloning plant.

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