The American public remains uncomfortable with animal cloning, but many food animal veterinarians consider cloning to be just another reproductive technology.
The Food and Drug Administration recently released draft documents on the safety of animal cloning. The FDA found that meat or milk from clones of adult cattle, swine, and goats—and offspring of these animals—is as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals (see JAVMA, Feb. 1, 2007). The agency also addressed issues of animal health, but not the ethics of cloning (see story).
Only about 22 percent of Americans believe that food from animal clones is safe, according to a survey of 1,000 consumers in September 2006 through the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. About 43 percent believe food from animal clones is unsafe, and about 36 percent are unsure.
According to a 2005 survey by the same group, about 56 percent of the public opposes research into genetic modification of animals.
And introducing transgenic animals into agriculture might cause more concern among veterinarians than letting clones enter the food supply.
"It doesn't seem like there's a lot of concern over cloning because, basically, they're genetic identicals," said Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. "Scientifically, you have to scratch your head and wonder what the controversy is about."
He said substantial numbers of animal clones probably won't reach production agriculture for years or decades. Even then, he said, clones likely will be breeding stock. Cloning will allow genetics companies to duplicate advantageous traits such as prolificacy, survivability, and meat production.
"It will probably improve production, down the road," Dr. Burkgren said. "It's another tool that people can use in improving the genetics of our production hogs."
Dr. Burkgren said FDA approval would help lift the veil of public skepticism over the safety of cloning, allowing investments and improvements to accelerate. He said cloning is another reproductive technology that will become more widespread when it is more affordable and has more applications.
Dr. Burkgren added that the genetic modification of animals for agriculture likely will be more controversial than cloning, but the AASV will look objectively at the science of transgenic animals before developing a position. So far, most AASV members have discussed cloning and genetic modification only casually—because their immediate concern is the health of the hogs under their care.
Dr. M. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said the AABP leadership has discussed cloning but hasn't developed a position. Dr. Riddell said the association probably will comment in response to the FDA documents that the agency has evaluated cloning with the appropriate rigor and scientific methodology.
Dr. Riddell noted that bovine practitioners work with reproductive technologies such as embryo transfer, artificial insemination, and in vitro fertilization. He said cloning is more complex and advanced but, otherwise, not much different from those techniques.
"This has been a fairly logical progression in the development of reproductive technology," he said.
Dr. Riddell said FDA approval hopefully would assuage public concerns about the safety of food from animal clones.
"The expense of the technology will limit this to a small number of animals, but they are still food animals," he said. "I doubt seriously if it will ever become as common as the other advanced reproductive technologies."
Dr. Riddell said a few AABP members do work with clients who own clones. Members also have provided tissues to repositories for the possible future cloning of animals with particular traits, such as disease resistance or milk production.
Dr. Riddell said cloning can be another tool for providing a safe and nutritious food supply. He added that genetic modification is a separate subject, not to say that transgenic animals won't receive similar scrutiny from the FDA.
For now, the FDA does not permit transgenic animals in the human food supply—and the agency continues to ask producers of clones and livestock breeders to refrain voluntarily from introducing food from clones into commerce.
The AVMA does not have a policy on cloning, but the Executive Board approved a policy in June 2005 on the Creation and Use of Genetically Modified Animals. In part, the policy states: "It is the position of the American Veterinary Medical Association that the creation of new genetic-based knowledge through basic genetic research and the practical application of that knowledge should not be needlessly restricted so long as it does not impact the integrity of the environment and the general health and well being of the genetically modified animal remains preferential to human values and needs."
The policy points out that conventional animal breeding is a method for selecting specific genetic traits. New biotechnology will allow for the selection of traits at a pace and with a precision never before possible.
The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, which counts the AVMA among its members, also is examining the topic of genetic modification within a series of issue papers on "Animal Agriculture's Future Through Biotechnology."
The introductory paper, "Biotechnology in Animal Agriculture: An Overview," notes that questions about safety and societal impacts arise from changes in technology.
"Inherent in the successful development and adoption of new and emerging biotechnologies for agriculture is the need to increase public understanding of the associated scientific, economic, legislative, ethical, and social issues," the authors write.
The overview paper is available by visiting www.cast-science.org or by calling (515) 292-2125. The next paper will be "Animal Productivity and Genetic Diversity: Transgenic and Cloned Animals."