Gonna Live Forever
it’s our food, next it’s our organs — where is the science
of cloning taking us?
like the rapturous Back-to-Eden movement led by food-production
purists like California chef-gourmand Alice Waters and goaded
with a cattle prod by Fast Food Nation’s mindful-consumption
provocateur Eric Schlosser is no match for agriculture’s common-law
marriage to biotech. It’s been a decade since the cloned mammalia
named after bosomy Dolly Parton was born.
Dolly the Sheep was an identical genetic copy created from
the mammary gland of an “anonymous ewe,” as Dolly’s mother/twin
was often absurdly called in the snarky press. And now that
the FDA has completed its five-year “study” (relying heavily
on data sets provided by commercial biotech companies’ labs)
on the safety of eating animal products from clones and their
offspring, the snarks (myself included) have made their share
of Dolly the Garlic-Spiced Lambchop references after the federal
regulatory agency gave what amounts to their Grade A stamp
of approval right before the curtain closed on 2006.
Admittedly, the seasoned-and-cloned lambchop references are
flawed cheap shots, because ever since the FDA’s first crack
at a clonal-meat-and-milk risk assessment in 2003, which drew
heavily on data from a 2002 National Academy of Science report,
the FDA has said that lab-dish cattle, swine, goats—created
the same way as Dolly—and their natural offspring, produced
through the messy birds-and-bees method, are OK to eat. Call
it ironic, but the jury’s still out on whether the original
clonal mammal is fit for consumption.
to limited data on sheep clones,” reads the FDA press release
on Dec. 28, 2006, “[the] FDA recommends that sheep clones
not be used for human food.”
(Their latest draft-risk assessment still stresses cloned-food
safety; but not the interest in cloning as an ethical issue
that the FDA report weakly expressed in 2003.)
I really thought the rainwater-catching, hemp-clothes-wearing,
heirloom-seed and beast-growing micro-local crop advocates
pushing traditional breeding and consumption were on the rise
after I spent two years orbiting in the same galaxy as science
and environmental journalist Michael Pollan, author of The
Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View
of the World, and a professor at my old journalism school
in California. Pollan’s the kind of guy who eats wild fish
(not mercury-prone farm-raised) and writes about how Wal-Mart
is soiling the already-muddied definition of “organic” by
trucking in products from far away, essentially coating pesticide-free
foods in the fossil fuels it takes to transport them. Pollan
based a whole book on hunting his own meals, and the moral
and ecological costs of falling underneath the tumbrels of
the ag/biotech-industry juggernaut.
seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater,” Pollan
writes in Dilemma, “that at least once in his life
he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which
his meat-eating depends.”
Texas is, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics
Service, the land of 230,000 farms spanning 130 million acres,
sustaining 14 million cattle and calves, 320,000 milk cows,
almost one million hogs and pigs. . . . And the home of clonal-science
world leader ViaGen, Inc., which, together with Pennsylvania-based
Cyagra, claims to have cloned more animals than any other
company or academic institution in the world.
The Austin, Texas-based, privately held ViaGen led the most
extensive swine-meat-composition study to date, cited by the
recent FDA assessment and set to be published this month in
the science journal Theriogenology. (Hopefully, one
of the scientists tasted a slab of clonal boar. Or do lab
rats do that?) U.S. News & World Report recently
said ViaGen was the company with the most riding on the final
FDA approval. But let’s broaden the conversation about ViaGen
for a moment, beyond their premier animal cloning and livestock-genetics
abilities. What else might such technology be used for?
magazine in 2004 published “John Sperling Wants You To Live
Forever,” a profile of the founder of the Apollo Group, which
brings us online-degree programs through the University of
Phoenix. In 1998, Sperling started a for-profit, anti-aging
medical clinic for burghers in Scottsdale, Ariz., a longevity
practice, if you will—called Kronos.
In a wholly related venture, the billionaire assembled experts
and funded the study of the new science of carbon copying;
his first successful foray into which was when he sponsored
the cloning of a housecat. In 2001, Sperling formed Exeter
Life Sciences, acquired biotech companies (like ViaGen) and,
through a joint venture with Geron Inc., a company that studies
embryonic-stem-cell-based therapies for degenerative diseases
like cancer, now “owns the rights to the intellectual property
used to clone Dolly,” according to Clone safety.org—a Web
site sponsored in part by ViaGen and Exeter Life Sciences,
both affiliated with Sperling.
Some people say it’s an ideological trompe l’oeil to say that
today it’s clones in your food supply, and tomorrow, if a
rich man pushing 90 has his way, there’ll be human applications
for this kind of special technology. Here’s a little insight
into the goals of the people who own the patent: Kronos’s
former CEO Jonathan Thatcher, later CEO at Exeter (whose biotech
holdings, I remind you, include ViaGen) told Wired,
“The next real market is for biological therapeutics. . .
. We will move into humans.”
This is a story of a cowgirl and her castrated horse, a story
you can tell your kids. Watch their little imaginations run
wild pondering the bucking stock-and-barrel racers of the
23rd century, which, thanks to one champion cowgirl and the
clipped-balls gelding that she had cloned for $150,000, might
very well look like all the resurrected and rippling livestock
that dominated 21st-century arenas. Conceivably, one rodeo-information
site argues, you can ride the same bull for eternity.
All this is to say that good genes are the aim of every livestock
breeder. Add a little sentimentality and the success that
11-time World Champion barrel racer Charmayne James had with
Scamper, and you understand why she paid ViaGen to get a Scamper
copy into her breeding program in Athens, Texas.
And the boys over at the rodeo, part of a bull-riding industry
in which you can earn millions, envy James. Binion Cervi,
of Cervi Championship Rodeo, who coordinates bucking horses,
bulls, and cattle from all over North America, is even talking
about collecting cells from Rio Bravo, an award-winning 24-year-old
paint gelding. But, like with the iPod, he’ll probably wait
for the price of the product to go down. “We’re not the innovators
or the early adopters,” the Colorado-based cowboy said, referring
to the theory of innovation diffusion. “We’re the early majority.”
Looking at the bell curve, the non-ag-affiliated, omnivore
public-at-large could be right behind Cervi, and part of the
late majority—the skeptical, traditional crowd hesitant to
buy or eat a clone (granted, most will be too expensive to
waste making Kobe steak, says ViaGen spokeswoman Lisa Hanna;
you’ll probably eat only their superior-genetics offspring).
In six major polls (including the Pew Initiative in 2005 and
the Gallup in 2004), more than half of Americans expressed
ethical, religious, or visceral problems with animal cloning.
But how would you detect one? That’s the FDA’s chief whine
about any labeling requirements for clonal meat and milk,
or products from their progeny. How the hell can you tell
what it is, in the hoof or display case?
While you ponder that, consider: For years, the FDA has asked
all clonal producers and buyers to adhere to a voluntary moratorium
on introducing such products into the food supply. From Reuters,
2003: “Headlines were made this week when the offspring of
some cloned pigs made it to market.” According to a Dec. 5,
2006, Center for Food Safety report, a dairy farmer
in Maryland has a court order to sell and slaughter the clones
on his farm, due to a legal dispute.
You can buy the semen of cloned bulls online, ViaGen President
Mark Walton told the Washington Post in October 2006,
in an article that ends with the portentous “like it or not
. . . the clones are out of the barn.” One could imagine that
for companies like ViaGen, the real value in the innovation
has got to be the speed with which cloning has been developed
and adopted (breaking into the food supply is no small feat,
but netting FDA approval for menus is a triumph). No doubt
the beastmaster, John Sperling, is tapping his fingertips
together, muttering “excellent” and anticipating immortality.
Whatever happened to Dolly? Born in Scotland in 1996, the
white-faced, curly haired Finn Dorset breed lived indoors,
was sweet-tempered, and would eat right out of your hand.
According to Reuters, she was put to sleep in 2003 due to
a severe lung infection.
final FDA recommendations on clonal food products is expected
after April. For the next three months, FDA is seeking comments
electronically at tinyurl.com/czw53. Written comments may
be sent to: Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food
and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville,
MD 20852. Comments must be received by April 2, 2007, and
should include the docket number 2003N-0573.