Can an Austin biotech firm radically change the world's food supply?
On February 22, 1997, scientists in Scotland stunned the world. They announced they had successfully cloned an animal in an Edinburgh laboratory—a lamb they called Dolly, created from the cells of a six-year-old ewe.
Dolly’s creation incited contentious debates across the globe. Pope John Paul II denounced the cloning as a “dangerous experiment” and warned that scientists shouldn’t play God. President Bill Clinton convened a task force to examine cloning’s legal and ethical implications. The breakthrough “could yield enormous benefits, but we need better understanding,” Clinton said in a press conference. “There is much about cloning that we still do not know.”
Dolly died from lung disease in 2003. By then, the hysteria and hype had faded and cloning had largely disappeared from the headlines. In the scientific world, however, the quest to perfect the technique, and to profit from it, was just getting started. The Edinburgh-based Roslin Institute, which cloned Dolly, sold its patents to a Scottish biotech firm, which eventually went bankrupt. In 2003 the Dolly patents were licensed to an Austin-based biotech firm named ViaGen. The company was little known, but had big ideas.
ViaGen came up with an ambitious plan to become the foremost provider of cloned livestock for food. The company claims it clones the hardiest breeding stock in the industry. It says cloning can meet the world’s growing demand for beef. ViaGen has established offices in Mexico and Canada, and has signed licensing agreements in Argentina to clone horses and cattle. The company is also expanding into Colombia, Brazil and China. CEO Blake Russell contends that cloned animals could help prevent global food shortages. “You can produce more feed-efficient animals and faster-growing animals and spread those genes rapidly through a population,” he says. “Cloning is a tool to feed the world.”
Introducing milk and meat from cloned animals into the food supply is a touchy subject. The very thought of eating cloned animals makes some consumers squeamish. But you may have already eaten cloned animal products without knowing it.
The United States is both pioneer and guinea pig in cloned food production. In 2008, the U.S. became the first country to decree that cloned cattle, pigs, goats, and their offspring are safe to eat. Americans have been consuming meat and milk from the offspring of cloned animals for at least a decade.
The offspring of clones are much more common in the food supply than the clones themselves, and it’s unlikely that many of the first-generation clones will end up on a dinner plate any time soon. Because of their high cost—$15,000 to $20,000 to clone a single cow or bull—the cloned animals are more valuable for breeding than for eating. Even so, there’s no way to know whether your steak comes from a clone, a clone offspring, or an animal produced by more conventional methods.
That’s because meat from clones and their offspring isn’t labeled. In 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided that food from cloned animals doesn’t need to be. In the years since, the Biotechnology Industry Organization—a trade group that represents ViaGen and other biotech firms—and the meat industry successfully defeated several bills in Congress that would have required labels for cloned food. The FDA argues that it would be too difficult to label such products anyway. There’s “no difference between [cloned products] and food produced by conventional methods. There’s really nothing for us to label,” said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, then director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, during a 2008 press conference.
The FDA and the biotech industry claim that food from clones is safe, but some scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to know for certain. To date, no large-scale studies have been done on the health effects of eating meat from cloned animals. The most comprehensive study the FDA examined was Japanese research comparing milk from 16 cloned cows to the milk of non-cloned cows. Scientists found minor differences in the composition of the milk from clones but attributed them “to diet, environmental conditions, small numbers of animals, and limited numbers of genotypes.” Dr. Pascale Chavatte-Palmer—a French scientist and leading cloning expert (her research was cited 54 times in the FDA’s 2008 report)—has said that more long-term studies are needed. After the FDA’s 2008 announcement that food from clones is safe to eat, Chavatte-Palmer told a Canadian reporter, “There is not enough data to indicate there will be no problem. We feel there is a rush to accept those clones.”
But even if cloned food proves safe, critics question whether it’s ethical or moral to clone animals for food, and worry that the cloning process amounts to animal cruelty. (The FDA does not consider such issues in determining food safety.) When cloning goes awry, the results can be grotesque. Cloned animals have a higher incidence of birth defects, including deformities such as calves being born inside out. In June 2004, Chavatte-Palmer reported in the journal Cloning and Stem Cells that 30 percent of cloned calves died in the first six months from ailments such as respiratory failure and abnormal kidney development. Cloned animals also suffer more frequently from a birth defect called Large Offspring Syndrome, which causes enlarged organs and body size at birth and often results in death for the calf and its surrogate mother.
ViaGen has heard these concerns before. Russell points out that the European Food Safety Authority came to the same conclusion as the FDA—that food from cloned animals is safe to eat. ViaGen contends that critics are still citing animal welfare issues from a decade ago. He says the science of cloning has greatly improved, generating fewer birth defects—which the company refers to as “inefficiencies”—and more live births. “I don’t remember the last time we’ve seen Large Offspring Syndrome,” says Brian Bruner, ViaGen’s director of animal operations. The company is moving ahead with its plan to take cloned food global. If ViaGen is successful, many more people will soon be consuming the descendants of clones.
For a company with global ambitions, ViaGen’s headquarters are modest: a suite of offices in an upscale business park in North Austin. On the walls are large glossy photographs of foals and calves cavorting in lush green pastures—little carbon copies of elite animals the company has cloned. Bruner and Russell may be engaged in 21st-century science but dressed in blue jeans and scuffed cowboy boots, with tanned faces and callused hands, they look like old-school ranchers who could be trading bids at a cattle auction. Only there’s no barn, just a sparkling white lab, Petri dishes, rows of microscopes and hundreds of cell lines stored in silver tanks of liquid nitrogen. When Bruner opens one of the tanks, fog pours out like a scene from a science fiction movie. Inside the tanks, he says, are cell lines for beloved pets, champion race horses and prize-winning cattle—all of which can be replicated any time their owners make the call. Bruner, who grew up cattle ranching, spends much of his time in the lab or working with cattle breeders in the field. With a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, a master’s in physiology and reproduction, and an MBA, Bruner has a knack for translating the science of cloning in a plainspoken way.
ViaGen clones cattle, racehorses, show horses and pigs for anyone willing to pay. But the company hopes to make its fortune cloning cattle for food. If a rancher wants a clone, ViaGen sends a biopsy kit to collect the animal’s DNA. The rancher takes a chunk of the animal’s ear and sends it to ViaGen. The company grows the cloned embryos at its laboratory and then sends them to an Iowa firm, which implants them into animals for surrogate gestation and birth.
While they’ve im-proved the technique, ViaGen officials have yet to turn a profit, and Russell must prove to investors that the small company of 18 employees can overcome the stigma of cloned animals and make money. For his part, Russell seems unconcerned. “I really don’t think it’s even on peoples’ minds to be worried about cloning,” he says. “It’s just another reproductive tool.”
Russell sounds confident, but he admits that further success depends on whether the public will accept cloned animals in the food supply. A 2009 survey by the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche found that 49 percent of U.S. consumers said they would not buy meat from cloned animals. In Europe, 58 percent of consumers in a 2008 survey said food from clones was “unjustified.” Cloning is prohibited in Europe, but cloned embryos and cloned animals can be imported from the United States.
For at least a decade, the U.S. government and the biotech industry have lobbied Europeans to accept biotech foods, with little success. France and Germany have banned genetically modified crops. European countries are now debating whether to ban cloned livestock for food production. It’s clear whose side the American government is on.
According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture memo, agency employees threatened European Union countries with “potential trade disruptions and subsequent retaliatory measures” if they banned food from clones. The EU would have been the first group of nations in the world to pass a ban on cloned meat and milk, but ultimately, fearing a U.S. trade war, EU states in March failed to summon the majority needed to approve the ban.
Regardless, ViaGen doesn’t see much market for cloned cattle in Europe. The future is in Asia, Latin America and the United States, Russell says.
If international markets remain open to clones, ViaGen aims to someday be as profitable as Monsanto, which spearheaded the global introduction of genetically modified crops in the 1990s. Like Monsanto, ViaGen claims that it can be instrumental in solving world food shortages. Though the world of biotech is intensely competitive and volatile, ViaGen has quite a bit going for it. Cyagra—owned by an Argentinean company, and ViaGen’s only U.S. commercial competitor—recently closed its U.S. operations. Then there’s ViaGen’s richest benefactor, billionaire investor John Sperling.
ViaGen wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Sperling, who lives in Arizona and turned 91 this year. Sperling made his billions after his company, the University of Phoenix, went public. He first came to Texas in 1998, inspired by the news of Dolly. He commissioned scientists at Texas A&M University to clone his dog Missy. The project was called Missiplicity. Ultimately, the scientists were unable to clone Missy but succeeded in cloning a cat they called Cc, for “Carbon Copy.” Sperling spent $3.7 million before pulling out of the Missiplicity project. In the past decade he has spent a considerable portion of his fortune on cloning, genetic engineering and human stem cell research. He owns several biotech companies, including a majority of ViaGen, which he formed in 2001.
Sperling’s deep pockets give ViaGen the luxury of time that many other biotech companies can’t afford. The company estimates at least another five years before its cloning technology becomes efficient enough and cheap enough to appeal to a majority of breeders. Cattle ranchers already routinely use advanced reproductive techniques—such as embryonic transfers and in vitro fertilization—to boost herd size and profits. ViaGen sees cloning as the next logical step.
Not everyone finds this brave new world of cattle breeding ethical or appetizing. Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., thinks cloning livestock for food production is not only unethical but unnecessary. “The United States already excels at breeding animals. You hear people out there saying: ‘We could use cloning to develop cattle for Third World countries that is drought-hardy and produces milk in drought situations.’ Well guess what? It already exists. It’s called a Brahman and people created it 10,000 years ago.”
Hanson, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in resource management, first waded into the debate over cloning animals for food a decade ago as chair of a biotech committee formed by the National Council of Churches. The religious community had commissioned him to examine the various ethical and moral issues surrounding the technology. Hanson toured labs across the country and spoke with scientists. The churches were especially concerned about the prospect of human cloning. Dolly wasn’t the first animal cloned, but she was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. “That was the earth-shattering thing about Dolly,” Hanson says. “If you could create Dolly, in theory, you could clone primates, which means you could also clone humans.”
Hanson, whose family has raised cattle for generations, was troubled by the Dolly experiment. In the process used to create Dolly—called somatic cell nuclear transfer—scientists strip the nucleus from an egg cell and replace it with the nucleus from a cell of the animal to be cloned. The cells can be taken from anywhere on the body—from an ear or an udder in Dolly’s case. They can even be taken from the carcass of an animal that has been dead up to 72 hours. Once the cell’s nucleus is added to the egg, they are fused with a jolt of electricity. This causes the egg cell to “reboot” and rewrite its DNA code. It then develops into an embryo that can be implanted into a surrogate mother. The process is labor-intensive and inefficient. It can require dozens of embryo-implantations until one finally results in pregnancy. In Dolly’s case, 277 eggs were fused but only 29 became embryos that could be implanted. Those 29 implanted embryos resulted in 13 pregnancies and only one live birth—Dolly.
Cloning is “one of the most brutal methods of breeding animals there is,” Hanson says. “It’s a bad idea for humans and a bad idea for cows.”
In 2004 Hanson went to work for the Center for Food Safety and started lobbying Congress against cloned food production. He argues that the studies the FDA used for its 2008 risk assessment were inadequate and relied on data provided by the cloning industry. “Given how little data is available, no reputable scientist looking at the sparse data would be able to give an opinion that food from clones is absolutely safe,” he says.
Dr. Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is also critical of the FDA’s risk assessment. “The basic argument was, if they look normal then they are probably safe to eat,” she says. Despite the FDA ruling, there is still no scientific consensus that cloned animals are safe to eat, she says. “There is concern about the inadequate research the FDA compiled.” One problem is that the agency doesn’t do its own safety studies. Instead, it relies on industry studies and whatever scientific questions the industry has asked, she says.
Some large U.S. food corporations are also questioning the FDA’s ruling. In Vermont, famous for its dairy production, the multi-million-dollar ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s is working to keep cloned animals out of its supply chain. Cloning has made its greatest inroads in the dairy industry. In 2008, Apple II, a heifer cloned by ViaGen, won the World Dairy Expo’s Winter Heifer Calf Class competition. It’s awfully tempting for dairy owners to clone high-producing cows.
Andrew Barker, social mission specialist at Ben & Jerry’s, says the company doesn’t want cloned dairy cows in its supply. “We’ve had that conversation with our suppliers,” he says. “But we don’t have any way of knowing for certain whether milk is coming from a cloned animal or a regular animal created the old-fashioned way.”
The company’s objections to clones are not so much about food safety as about animal welfare and, ultimately, about money. Ben & Jerry’s exports ice cream to several countries around the world. Cloning could give U.S. food products a bad name and ultimately affect Ben & Jerry’s overseas sales if countries decide to oppose clones.
The U.S. government has acknowledged the thorny trade issue, albeit in a passive way. After the FDA announced that food from clones was safe to eat in 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—charged with marketing American foods overseas—asked livestock producers to participate in a voluntary moratorium to keep cloned animals out of the food supply. The USDA said in a press release that it needed time “to ensure a smooth and seamless transition into the marketplace for these products.” Since 2008, the agency has actively lobbied against overseas bans on cloning, while remaining largely quiet on the issue at home. The voluntary moratorium has never been lifted, nor has it been enforced.
Even if it was, the U.S. government doesn’t keep a national database of clones. In 2007, ViaGen started its own database, but kept it voluntary. Each clone ViaGen creates is given a unique numbered ear tag and the information is kept on file. But once the animal leaves ViaGen, it’s up to each individual owner to keep track of clones and report back to ViaGen when the animal dies. The clones’ offspring aren’t tracked at all. ViaGen has cloned approximately 1,000 animals. Industry estimates the number of clone offspring in the thousands, but no one knows the actual number.
Ben & Jerry’s has lobbied Congress to create a national tracking system and to mandate labeling of cloned food products, but with little success. “Overall, you get the picture that the biotech industry is very powerful in Washington, and it’s clear that the industry is not interested in a mandatory tracking system or in labeling,” Barker says.
Most cattle-breeding associations have started requiring that cloned animals be documented in their pedigree, which could be one way to track the animals. But once the animal is bred with another that’s not a clone, it gets more difficult. “Once cloned genetics are in the national dairy herd, you have to start looking at the second and third generation if we want a really watertight system,” Barker says. “Anything that falls short of that is not a very good system.”
At the very least, Barker says, products should be labeled so consumers can make educated choices. At the moment, there’s no way for consumers to know if the food they’re eating is descended from cloned animals. Even food designated “organic” can come from the offspring of cloned animals. The USDA is considering tightening those regulations, but has yet to do so. “I find it hard to imagine that there aren’t offspring of clones across organic programs, because of the prevalence of the offspring of clones,” says ViaGen CEO Russell.
Perhaps no grocer sells more organic products than Whole Foods—another Austin-based company—which says it is “committed to providing consumers with clone-free products,” says spokesperson Elizabeth Smith. “Our standards do not allow meat or seafood from cloned animals or their offspring in our stores.”
But they can’t be sure. The reality is that with an increasing number of offspring from clones in the food supply—and with no tracking or labeling of those animals—it’s impossible for Whole Foods or any other store to be certain that its food is clone-free.
For its part, Ben & Jerry’s is taking a more activist role to educate the public about the presence of food from clones. In 2009, the company created a spoof website called “Cyclone Dairy,” which advertises “Perfect cows. Perfect milk.” to raise awareness about the FDA’s approval of cloned livestock. Ben & Jerry’s staffers took the campaign to New York City, Washington, D.C., and other cities across the United States. Disguised as “Cyclone Dairy” employees, they offered samples of milk from supposedly cloned dairy cows to passersby. “What we found is that people are not aware of the FDA’s decision and they are quite unhappy about it,” Barker says. “People were very uncomfortable with food coming from cloned animals, and there were a lot of different reasons why.”
Many of the concerns were moral or ethical in nature, which the FDA doesn’t consider when approving food for the U.S. market. “The FDA’s purview is really quite narrow,” Barker says. “They’re not asking if people are concerned about cloned foods from an ethical standard or about animal welfare issues. They’re simply asking ‘is this food safe for human consumption?’” Barker argues that cloned or genetically modified farm animals are about much more than that. “What do we really want our food supply in America to look like?” he asks. “A lot of FDA decisions are being made on a very narrow basis, and we don’t have the ability to regulate foods or deliberate about new food technologies in a way that looks at all of the relevant issues.”
On a sprawling cattle ranch south of Fort Worth, ViaGen’s Brian Bruner says he’s heard the ethical and moral concerns, especially when he’s sitting on airplanes. “Once I explain the science to them, they are a lot more willing to accept it,” he says.
Part-owner of his family’s ranch, Bruner says breeders who use cloning have an economic advantage. He cites his own example: Bruner owned half of a top-breeding Charolais cow called 248. The cow produced two bulls that sold for $170,000 and $50,000, respectively. Five years ago, he decided to sell 248 to a breeder in Minnesota for $16,000. But Bruner kept a few of 248’s cells and later made nine clones. Bruner not only made money from selling 248, he managed to keep profiting from breeding her, because he now has nine identical copies. “The only reason I sold her is because I knew I could clone her,” he says.
Out in the pasture, 248’s clones, all white and upwards of 1,500 pounds, graze next to the surrogate cows that birthed them. In the barn, ViaGen has just calved six identical Brahman cows for a client up north. Bruner’s 71-year-old father Gene points them out to me. The white, doe-eyed calves lie in a huddle on their folded spindly legs. “If you sampled each one of them, you’d find that their DNA is identical,” Gene says. “They look like full siblings but they’re not—they’re identical copies—and it’s hard to get people to wrap their minds around that.”
In a baseball cap and short-sleeved Western shirt, Gene is the picture of a small-town Texas rancher, which he is. But Gene Bruner’s cattle ranch is a little different. Decades ago his ranch was an early adopter of artificial insemination. He sees cloning as the next step in advanced reproductive technology. “I think it’s the smart thing to do,” he says.
More people would embrace cloning technology if it were called something else, Brian says. “Honestly, I think that most people have a negative reaction because of science fiction. Every time you hear about clones it’s ‘Attack of the Clones’ or ‘Evil Clones’ or something like that,” he says.
“They’re just cows,” Gene tells me. “A bunch of people are afraid of them being in the food chain, but they’re just cows. I wouldn’t be afraid to eat one.”
In the pasture, the Charolais clones stamp and bellow for food. Brian, sweating in the triple-digit heat, shakes some feed out of a large paper bag onto the parched yellow grass. If one of the prized clones were to perish, he has more of 248’s cells in a cryogenic tank back at the ViaGen office in Austin. In effect, 248, or rather a copy, could live forever.
But after some prodding, even Brian admits that his clones do sometimes unnerve him. “When we go to vaccinate them, they all go to the exact same part of the chute as 248 did,” he says. “They act the same and are afraid of needles just like she was. It is kind of eerie.”
But an eerie feeling or two won’t stand in the way of progress. Soon, Bruner will travel to China, the world’s most populous country. By 2030, China’s population is expected to peak at 1.5 billion, and the government is already feverishly working on ways to increase the country’s food supply. ViaGen thinks it can help. “Whether people go along with us or not,” Bruner says, “we’re going to keep moving forward.”