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Study of Agri-Food Industry’s View on Animal Cloning

The sale of food from cloned animals and their offspring is legal in the USA. The US Food and Drug Administration in 2008 stated that such products were indistinguishable from those of non-cloned animals.

Following this, researchers at Teagasc, Dublin Institute of Technology and University College Cork decided to investigate the views of Irish agri-food stakeholders’ on the topic of animal cloning. The researchers carried out in-depth interviews with expert Irish stakeholders with the aim of framing the likely policy debate and assess the prospects for the future commercialisation of animal cloning. The results feature in an article in the autumn edition of TResearch, the Teagasc research and innovation magazine.

“Cloned animals intended for use within the agri-food system do not have approval in Europe, and how the technology will be legislated is currently under discussion. The European Food Safety Authority deems that food products from healthy clones do not present any additional risk to consumers, but the European Group for Ethics has objected to the use of cloning because of the current animal welfare implications, including the low survival rate for cloned animals, and the potential for welfare problems with the surrogate dams,” explains Dr Maeve Henchion, Head of the Food Market Research Unit, Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown.

“The acceptability of these welfare standards from a European Union (EU) perspective can be linked to their utility; for example, the European Medicines Agency approved the production of human anti-thrombin from cloned transgenic animals in 2006. The protein produced treats a hereditary anti-thrombin deficiency that increases the risk of pulmonary embolisms or deep vein thrombosis,” says Maeve Henchion. “However, the views of European citizens and consumers must also be factored into the risk process. Early indications from the European public are that they are wary of the technology and that it poses an ethical dilemma. This research provides an opportunity to examine animal cloning in terms of barriers and opportunities, specifically pertaining to its potential role within the Irish agri-food system.”

“The views of Irish stakeholders in the discourse on animal cloning for the agri-food sector are of particular interest because, unlike the GM debate in relation to crops, Ireland is a significant producer and exporter of meat and livestock. For this reason the exploitation of cloning in other trading blocs looks set to pose a challenge for Irish and EU policy makers, industry and citizens,” says Maeve Henchion.

Interview findings

Overall, animal cloning for food purposes was not viewed as a likely commercial prospect by any of the interviewees. Awareness of the recent commercial development of such technology in the US appeared to be low, with only a single interviewee identifying it as an impending regulatory dilemma for the EU. Knowledge about the role of assisted reproductive technologies in animal breeding varied, with artificial insemination being the primary reference point for most interviewees. Respondents with a technology background, and who demonstrated knowledge of assisted reproductive technologies, differed in opinion on the commercial viability of techniques such as embryo transfer/splitting. This cohort was quick to differentiate cloning from other reproductive techniques, a trend that was not repeated among other stakeholders. The main reason for the differentiation was that cloning was not seen to assist reproduction, but instead to supersede the fertilisation process and be more closely aligned to a sort of genetic modification process (though no genetic modification actually occurs).

The data from the in-depth interviews highlighted that, as yet, there has been little debate on the topic, and the commercialisation of cloning elsewhere has gained little attention. Regardless of when the debate does occur, the animal welfare and consumer acceptability perspectives are likely to have a central role in how the technology is regulated. Further research in this project will focus on examining Irish citizens’ perspectives on cloning technology and the issues raised by the expert stakeholders during the current study.