The world's biggest animal cloning factory is under construction in China, with plans to mass-produce pet and police dogs, racing horses and a million beef cattle annually by 2020.
The plant will be located in the northern port of Tianjin, in the government-sponsored business development park - Tianjin Economic and Technological Development Area (TEDA), and is due to be completed by June next year.
The 200 million yuan (£20.5 million) facility — backed by biotechnology company BoyaLife, the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine, Peking University's Institute of Molecular Medicine, and South Korea's Sooam Biotech — will set up a cloning lab, a gene bank and a science education centre.
Sinica, Peking University's Institute of Molecular Medicine signed the agreement with the TEDA on 20 November 2015.
These animals will be used for commercial services and improving breeds. The factory will particularly focus on cow breeding, with plans to produce 100,000 cattle embryos a year before expanding annual output to one million.
The first animal to come down the line will be Japanese cows, in an attempt to lower the price of high-quality beef in the Chinese market.
According to Xu Xiaochun, head of Boyalife Group,Chinese farmers are struggling to breed enough beef cattle to meet the demands of its increasingly carnivorous and ever-growing middle class. Rabobank estimates that by 2025 country will consume 2.2 million more tons of beef than it does now.
Many companies have shown interest in investing in the technology for commercial use, especially animal husbandry prior to this, but cloning in China had been limited to scientific research.
Xiaochun says, ”the technology is already there. If this is allowed, I don't think there are other companies better than Boyalife that make better technology.
In recent years, cloning of farm animals for food production has become an increasingly controversial topic of debate, but Xu is hopeful that people will change their views and let the research go ahead. He says, "we want the public to see that cloning is really not that crazy, that scientists aren’t weird, dressed in lab coats, hiding behind a sealed door doing weird experiments."
The advent of a commercial-scale cloning factory with a particular focus on producing cows, confirms how China’s rising level standards and rapid urbanisation have led to a soaring appetite for meat.
China’s reliance on imported meat has grown significantly in the past few years — a move that has drastically impacted the prices for for grain and dairy products in the rest of the world. The country has recently launched a five-year plan for 2016-2020 that reveals a proposed increase in imports of meat and animal feed to help meet the growing demand.
In October 2015, 150 Australian live cattle destined for slaughter were flown by plane to China. Yet with the advent of the large-scale clone factory, could China reduce the reliance on foreign beef imports, and with what price for other countries?
China’s new plan has also caused enormous online concerns abut the ethics of this venture. Social media critics have expressed skepticism over consumer willingness to buy cloned meat, given that China is already plagued with poor food safety and consumer mistrust. The critics have pointed out that the plant will be located in the special development zone where deadly chemical explosions killed at least 165 people in August 2015. Who should bear responsibility for ensuring the food security in the area and what will be the company’s health and safety regulations?
There is controversy over whether cloned products are safe for human consumption. As of yet, there is no evidence what effect may the products have on people in the long term. According to Zhu Yi, a professor of food science at China Agricultural University, there is "almost no difference" between cloned and real cattle. However, he adds, companies should not rush to put cloned meat on the market without "rigorous risk assessments and repeated experiments".
Another question is whether China will export this meat and to which countries? In September 2015, the European parliament introduced a ban on cloning animals for food, and the halting of imports and products derived from cloned livestock. The EP supporters pointed to scientific findings by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) from 2008 that the health and welfare of clones are adversely affected due to the cloning technology, often severely and with a fatal outcome. Does this imply China has no care for animal welfare? Xiaochun asks, “was this ban based on scientific rationale or ethical rationale or political agenda?” He added, “Legislation is always behind science. But in the area of cloning, I think we are going the wrong way and starting to kill the technology.”
In 2008, the US Food and Drug Administration noted that food products derived from cloned animals are safe to enter the US. However, if the US were to import these products, could there yet be a backlash from consumers, comparable to controversy over genetically modified food?
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has yet to review the issue.
Image credits: Flickr/ Carol Von Canon
The Guardian (24 November 2015) Largest animal cloning factory can save species, says Chinese founder
The Telegraph (24 November 2015 China ‘cloning factory’ to produce cattle, racehorses and pets
Channel NewsAsia (24 November 2015) World's biggest animal clone factory raises fears in China
International Business Times UK (1 December 2015) China's giant cloning factory is 'advanced enough to experiment on humans' - if it's allowed to
Fortune (1 December 2015) China Will Start Cloning Cattle to Meet Rising Beef Demands