Offering some food for thought on food and cloning

Published 10:05 pm Saturday, September 8, 2012

Two weeks ago, I mentioned cloning as an appropriate term to describe the reproduction of plants without the original processes of pollination and seed formation.

Either by nature creating bulbs or humans grafting favorite varieties, exact genetic copies of plants is the result since there is no combining of genes from two parent plants. But what about cloning of animals? If the goal of replicating good genetics applies to food plants, why not do the same with food animals?

I know this is not an op-ed column, but I do opine that I am not in favor cloning humans. Nobody should have the legal right to have himself cloned merely because he is smarter than me, prettier than me and can afford it. The same goes for his dog, even if it wins Best in Show. But when it comes to animals that were domesticated for people food, cloning could be considered another step in a long history of genetically improving livestock.

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Animals pretty much come aboard as 50-50 male and female. Ever since people penned-up animals and controlled their well-being, we have sought to identify and concentrate genes superior for hams, rump roast, milk and eggs.

This was first done thousands of years ago by picking out one male to mate with numerous females instead of allowing all males to be potential sires. And this is still the most used method of managing livestock genetics today.

Artificial insemination was a breakthrough for spreading the best genes among farm animals. It became commonplace on dairy farms in the 1950s and ’60s, and purebred beef cattle growers soon signed on. A mature bull can be counted on to breed about 30 cows in a breeding season. Using A.I., as we call it, a bull can sire hundreds, even thousands, of calves each year.

Both selecting sires for natural breeding and artificial insemination utilizes the male side of the equation. Attention is very much paid to the females in a sire’s pedigree. But it wasn’t until the process of embryo transplant was perfected in cattle that the gene package of individual female dairy and beef animals could be multiplied faster than the typical one calf per year.

This process came in to use in the 1970s and still today it is only used in the upper echelon of purebred cattle because of its expense. The gene “trickle down effect” is how the costly genes eventually get to typical cows grazing Mississippi pastures and Montana rangelands.

So, would cloning not be just another step in selecting and multiplying animal genes to produce more food for a growing population? I wouldn’t think the actual procedure could be more tedious or scientific or unnatural than using hormone injections to make a cow produce five or six embryos instead of one, surgically removing those embryos, transplanting each one into a surrogate mother and repeating the whole deal twice more a year.

I’m not trying to be politically correct or incorrect here; merely offering food for thought about food.

Terry Rector writes for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District, 601-636-7679 ext. 3.