As the Roslin Institute prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the birth of Dolly the sheep (the first animal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell) next year, the news last week was that the European Commission had voted to ban cloning of all farm animals, as well as the sale of cloned livestock, their offspring and products derived from them. However the ban does not cover cloning for research purposes, and does not prevent efforts to clone endangered species.
Cloned farm animals are not produced for consumption; instead they are used as breeding stock, with cloned embryos and semen used widely in the United States, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. In beef cattle, the quality and yield of their meat can only be assessed after they are slaughtered. And male animals are routinely neutered when they're a few days old. But cells from a high-quality carcass can be cloned, giving rise to an animal that is able, though conventional breeding methods, to pass its superior genes to its offspring.
Farm animals are also being genetically engineered to produce drugs or proteins that are useful in medicine. For example, cells from a cow that produces large amounts of milk can be grown in culture. A gene can then be inserted into the DNA of these cells that codes for a drug or a vaccine. If the nucleus from one of these “transgenic” cells is transferred to a cow egg, a cow that makes the drug in its milk could be produced. Since every cell in the cow would carry the drug gene, the gene would be passed to its offspring, creating many drug-producing cows.
The European Commission is ready to ban animal cloning in the 28-nation bloc, and MEPs plan to go to go further by halting all imports and the use of cloned products to ease public concerns about food safety.
"We want to ban comprehensively. Not just the use of cloning techniques but the imports of reproductive material, clones and their descendants" said MEP Renate Sommer.
However EU Food and Health Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukatitis argued that descendants of cloned animals showed no health problems and a complete ban might be difficult to sustain in law. Tracing the lineage of products would be a monumental effort, he said, and would push up the price of meat. Also, such a ban could provoke retaliation by trade partners.
The ban on cloning farm yard animals comes shortly after the news that Scottish ministers are planning to formally ban genetically modified crops from being grown in Scotland. Scottish scientists, including those at the James Hutton Institute and the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, have taken a leading role in GM research. Almost 30 organisations have signed an open letter seeking an urgent meeting with Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead to discuss their concerns. Signatories to the letter include the National Farmers' Union, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Roslin Institute and the European Academies Science Advisory Council. The scientists and academics said outlawing the cultivation of GM crops "risks constraining Scotland's contribution to research and leaving Scotland without access to agricultural innovations which are making farming more sustainable elsewhere in the world."
The First Minister has admitted that her government’s decision to ban the growing of GM crops was “not based on scientific considerations but, rather one which took into account the wider economic ramifications that growing GM crops might have for Scotland.”
Scotland has a proud tradition of leading the way in innovation and scientific discovery, but with the ban on the cultivation of GM crops in Scotland we may be prevented from benefiting from future innovations in agriculture, fisheries, and healthcare.
The EU ban on cloning farm yard animals extends to a ban on the sale of the offspring of cloned animals, and products derived from such offspring. Although the ban does not extend to cloning for research purposes, such research will only take place if it has an outcome that is not prohibited by law. Regarding my example above in respect of “drug producing” cows, the EU ban as proposed might prohibit the sale of products from these cows, so the research behind such innovation may be discouraged.
With any scientific breakthrough involving genetic manipulation of an organism, ethics and tight regulations must be adhered to. But it is disheartening to see that both bans discussed above have no real scientific basis.