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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 January 2007, 22:38 GMT
Developing nations need cloning
Calestous Juma (Image: M Stewart)
Calestous Juma

Animal cloning can help deliver environmental benefits in developing nations, says Professor Calestous Juma. In this week's Green Room, he argues that biotechnology could ensure the survival of rare cattle breeds that are well suited to cope with harsh conditions.

Cloned cows (Image: AP)
Anticipated impacts of climate change are likely to have far-reaching implications for the livestock industries of poor nations
After five years of study, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that food from cloned animals is safe to eat.

Some consumer organisations, however, remain uneasy about the decision and are calling for an examination of the ethical aspects of cloning.

While their concerns are understandable, they fail to take into account the potential environmental benefits of cloning, especially for developing countries.

For example, anticipated impacts of climate change are likely to have far-reaching implications for the livestock industries of poor nations, especially those in Africa.

Adapting to such disruptions will require additional investments in technological innovation, including animal cloning for food and conservation.

Africa's farming systems are already under stress. Cattle breeds resistant to diseases such as sleeping sickness are dwindling at an alarming rate as local farmers adopt larger zebu breeds to replace their hardier but smaller taurine relatives.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that nearly 1,500, or 30%, of livestock breeds are threatened with extinction, most of which are in developing countries. Less than 100 are currently being conserved.

Ecological disruption is likely to accelerate such trends. Slowing the decline will require the use of reproductive techniques such as animal cloning for predictable livestock production, in addition to expanded breeding conservation programmes.

Seeking stability

Adapting to ecological disruption and maintaining economic stability could benefit from cloning.

This will help farmers in developing countries increase meat and milk production without the use of expensive hormones, antibiotics and chemicals. Such uses could also have positive environmental benefits.

Experimental rice plants (Image: G Vergara/Irri)
Arguments need to be considered in light of new scientific evidence and the needs of developing countries

Researchers have already started to use cloning for conservation purposes.

The US-based Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species has produced wildcat kittens (Felis libyca) from cloned adults.

Scientists are hoping to use cloning to save threatened species such as Vietnam's saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), gaur (Bos gaurus) and banteng (Bos javanicus) and the wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee).

In 2004, for example, Indian scientists announced a plan to spend $1m (500,000) to clone the endangered Asian lion because less than 300 of the animals were estimated to exist.

Other endangered species, especially fish and amphibians, could also benefit from assisted reproductive techniques such as cloning.

Consumer organisations, however, raise legitimate safety and ethical concerns about cloning. Their arguments need to be considered in light of new scientific evidence and the needs of developing countries.

For example, take safety. The peer-reviewed journal Theriogenology has published a collection of articles that examined the health of cloned animals, their nutritional composition and other relevant parameters.

They came to the same conclusions as the FDA. And a nutritional study by France's National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA) showed no differences between meat and milk products of cloned animals and their traditional counterparts.

A study covering some 100 parameters of specific proteins and nutrients carried out by Japan's Kagoshima Prefectural Cattle Breeding Development Institute and the University of Connecticut showed that beef from cloned cattle could not be distinguished from that obtained from traditionally bred cattle.

Food from cloned animals is therefore as safe as its conventional counterpart.

Researchers at Japan's Research Institute for Animal Science in Biochemistry and Toxicology revealed that there were no significant changes in the urine and blood of rats arising from the consumption of meat and milk from cloned cattle.

There are ethical concerns that need to addressed, especially those related to animal welfare.

A study conducted by Argentine, American and Brazilian scientists has concluded there is an increase in the frequency of health risks posed to cloned cattle in parts of their life cycle. However, the study does not show that cloning poses risks that are qualitatively different from those posed by conventional means.

Animal welfare is an important aspect of our humanity and should be addressed by improving animal breeding and management techniques and not by outlawing their use.

The scientific community should continue to work closely with animal experts and ethicists to monitor and help improve the ethical standards of cloning techniques.

Ethical dilema

The needs of developing countries, on other the hand, raise new ethical issues. Their most urgent concerns are associated with having access to techniques that will help them adapt their production system to changing ecologies and markets.

Cloning is more expensive than conventional breeding methods. While the economic benefits of cloned animals may offset the initial investment, many of the world's poor farmers cannot afford the high cost of cloned animals, with prices of up to $20,000 (10,000) per clone.

Desert (Image: SPL)

The main limiting factor is the lack of domestic technical capacity in poor countries to apply cloning techniques for economic and conservation purposes.

One way forward is to create research partnerships that will help developing countries become genuine partners in the development and use of cloning techniques. Such arrangements will also help promote consumer acceptance of products from cloned animals in developing countries.

Contributing to advances in such technologies would not only help developing countries raise the quality of their animal products, but they would also help them use the techniques to restore endangered species.

Critics of cloning are justified to raise concerns about the safety and ethical aspects of cloning, but their concerns should take into account the possible benefits of cloning for conservation purposes.

There is no guarantee that cloning would have a major impact on the wider threats to species survival, but foregoing the use of these techniques would raise new ethical concerns.

Calestous Juma is a professor of international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and co-chairs a high-level expert panel of the African Union on modern biotechnology

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Calestous Juma? Should we find ways to help poorer countries develop cloning techniques? Or are you sceptical about the science? Send us your views using the link below:

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