A revolution is on the horizon for America's animal farmers, one that could completely change the way we get our milk, eggs and beef.
Cloning is quickly and quietly becoming more of a reality. Already an experimental dairy farm run by the biotech company Infigen in Wisconsin is producing milk by the gallons. And barring a major intervention by the federal government, you could see it in your grocery store as early as next year.
Infigen's president, Michael Bishop, sees a future where there will be clones of clones, where dairy farmers can predict its herd's productivity with stunning accuracy, completely eliminating the damaging fluctuations of the marketplace.
"You have a founder animal that you know can produce 30,000 pounds of milk. Take its clone, and if you do this, this and this, you'll expect 30,000 pounds of milk. You'll know ahead of time what the production is going to be," said Bishop.
Cloned Prized Bulls and Organ Farms
Farmers could raise cloned animals to supply organs for transplantation into humans, a rancher could make the genes from a prized bull live forever, reproducing the invaluable genetic line over and over.
"If you have the ability to produce a cow, a good cow, that has tremendous potential," said Bill Perry of the Dairy Farmers of America. "The dairy farmer in this country, when [the technology] is viable, will use it."
Farmers are waiting for the technology to catch up to their imaginations. Some are saving cells from their prized dairy cows and bulls, hoping that once the technology works its way down to the average farmer, they will be able to take advantage of it.
But the science is not quite ready. Studies put the success rate of cloning at a mere 3 percent to 5 percent, and what few clones are actually born usually develop strange abnormalities. Even 5-year-old Dolly, the cloned sheep, is obese, and scientists don't know why.
"There are certain unknowns being increasingly brought to the attention of science that raise questions of concern," said Joe Mendelson of the Washington-based Center for Food Safety.
Waiting For the Science
Cloning involves taking the nucleus out of an adult cell, usually from the animal's ear, and putting it into an unfertilized egg. That egg, containing the genetic material of the original animal, hopefully develops into an embryo.
Infigen uses this process known as nuclear transfer cloning and claims they've developed and patented a system that is superior to other methods. They boast a 17 percent success rate and say the animals that do come to term are healthy and show no signs of abnormalities. Bishop refuses to identify what makes his technique different from the others, but claims the process is the same.
Still, to put cloning within reach of the average farmer, the success rate would have to climb to 30 percent or 40 percent.
"Cloning is going to have to come a long way. It's not easy to do, too confusing and it's too expensive right now," said Perry. "But once it gets to that point, you'll see our dairy farmers taking a good look at that."
When artificial insemination first came to the forefront in the cattle industry more than 60 years ago, it also was very expensive and confusing. But most dairy farmers now use artificial insemination on a regular basis. Some studies show about 60 percent of cows in the United States are artificially inseminated. Bishop thinks cloning is on the same path.
He expects to begin marketing his cloned herd's milk next year, and thinks it will only take three to five years for his company to work out enough of the bugs from his cloning technique to make it a real option for farmers.
Market Is Already Ready
Despite all the uncertainties that remain about cloning, there is already a market for cloned results. Just last month a South Dakota dairy farmer and a group of investors paid $100,000 for the unborn clone of a prize Holstein cow. The fetus was the third such unborn clone sold at auction, all at similar prices.
"You'll see a much bigger split in the dairy industry," said Bishop. "Some will be in the business of producing genetics, some will be in the business of producing milk."
Once cloning does become more mainstream, farms will then need to grapple with a host of new issues, like the very real threat of diluting gene pools and the question of genetic ownership. When there is a market for clones, does somebody own the DNA? "That's an interesting question," said Bishop.