Chinese firm aims to build ‘world’s largest cloning factory’

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-19 18:53:01

To meet increasing Chinese demand for beef, some breeders are beginning to resort to cloning premium breeds. Recently, a biotechnology enterprise announced that it is building the "world's largest cloning factory" in the port city of Tianjin in cooperation with a South Korean cloning company, which has sparked wide controversy surrounding the feasibility of their plans and the safety of cloned meat.

Two of the six calves of the Blonde d'Aquitaine breed of beef cattle at a cattle-breeding facility in Xuchang county, Central China's Henan Province, December 10, 2015. Photo: CFP

Xu Xiaochun, a genomic scientist and entrepreneur, has recently become one of most sought-after interviewees in China since he announced that his company was building the "world's largest cloning factory."

The factory, under construction in the Tianjin Economic and Technological Development Area (TEDA), will mainly clone premium-quality beef cattle. Xu claims it will produce 100,000 embryos a year initially, and eventually pump out an incredible 1 million per annum.

The embryos will be sold to ranchers and used on the factory's own farms as breeding stock, according to Xu, chairman of Boyalife Genomics, a co-founder of the factory.

"The factory will not be a traditional one, but more of a high-level industrial laboratory. About 400 researchers will work there," Xu told the Global Times last week.

The factory is scheduled to start operations in a few months and Xu says it will also clone dairy cows, racehorses and dogs. "Without paying more money, domestic consumers will get access to better quality beef," he underlined. Through the large-scale cloning of cows, they hope to quickly improve the quality of Chinese beef.

Premium beef sold in China is mostly imported from places like Australia and Argentina. Japanese Kobe beef from Wagyu cows, a breed renowned for its meat's marbling and tenderness, is sold for up to 2,000 yuan ($303) per kilogram in China.

Xu's ambition has drawn support from some peers, who believe Xu's venture will help reform China's backward husbandry industry.

But there are also suspicions and public concerns. Some husbandry insiders are skeptical about his plan's feasibility.

Some netizens raised concerns over the safety of eating cloned livestock and their offspring; Some even worry that the rapid expansion of livestock agriculture will exacerbate environmental pollution and compromise animal welfare.

These worries don't seem to bother Xu, however. "Any technology, from its invention to commercialization, will be met with skepticism and denial," Xu responded. "The improving of the country's husbandry concerns the society and livelihoods."

Backwards beef 

In recent years, Chinese beef consumption has seen annual double-digit growth and is expected to double in the next five to 10 years, according to Xu.

"If we still rely on traditional breeding methods and imports, we won't be able to meet demand," Xu said.

After studying and working in Canada and the US for 17 years, Xu returned to China in 2008. With academic achievements in the field of stem cell research and experience working in a major American biopharmaceutical company, Xu founded Boyalife and resolved to bring premium beef and diary products to Chinese tables though biotechnology.

Liu Hongbo, technical director of Henan Greengens Biotechnology, shares a similar dream. Greengens succeeded in cloning nine cattle last November, including six Blonde d'Aquitaine cows and one Wagyu.

"So far the calves are still all healthy," Liu told the Global Times. "Many cattle breeding agencies called us, asking to buy them."

A State-owned cattle breeding company in Henan Province bought a Blonde d'Aquitaine bull from France years ago and as it is now elderly, Greengens and three partners - an agricultural company, the breeding agency and a farm in Henan - worked together to clone it.

When the calves are 18 months old, they can be sold for 300,000 yuan each, according to Henan media.

In 2014, Greengens cloned a total of 35 purebred local pigs for a client.

The domestic market for premium breeds has huge potential, Liu said. Chinese local breeds have been lagging behind, although China is a major beef and dairy consumer.

"The average milk output of a Chinese dairy cow is five to six tons per year, but in the US the number is doubled and their quality is better," Liu said.

He noted biotechnology techniques such as cloning, IVF (in vitro fertilization) and embryo transfers have been widely used in the breeding process internationally, and there are quite a few companies that export high-quality breeds' semen.

"An Australian company has even started selling the somatic cells of elite animals," said Liu, who worked in a leading commercial cloning company in the US for three years. Somatic cells are any of an organism's cells apart from sperm and egg cells.

But he pointed out that there is an unspoken rule in the industry that elite livestock owners will not sell their best breeding animals.

China's commercial cloning is in its initial stage. Except for a handful of lab cloning experiments done by academic institutions or State-laboratories, Liu said only two or three enterprises are doing commercial cloning.

"Besides, cloning an elite animal is cheaper than importing one," he said. "Some top cattle cost up to $1 million each in the US."

Xu says the factory will clone imported cattle.

Technology in question

David Kim, a researcher at South Korea's Sooam Biotech Research Foundation 2006, another co-founder of the Tianjin factory which is set to provide the factory with technological support, told the Global Times they have accumulated the needed technology and experience to produce premium beef breeds through cloning.

But according to the Sooam's website, they mainly clone dogs, including sniffer dogs for South Korean police, Tibetan Mastiffs for Chinese clients and Pugs for the Japanese market.

Kim said Sooam has cloned 753 dogs so far and the average price to clone a pet dog is $100,000. The number of orders is gradually increasing and most of their clients are from the US. He declined to reveal the number of cattle Sooam has cloned.

The factory's planned output of 1 million cattle embryos a year has shocked some experts. In a recent report by Southern Weekly, an unidentified Chinese cloning expert alleged Xu was "talking big," citing the low efficiency of cloning and the difficulty of finding enough surrogate cows to carry hundreds of thousands of embryos.

Irina Polejaeva, associate professor of animal cloning at Utah State University, said based on current technology, 1 million cell-stage embryos can only produce around 15-30 thousand clones due to losses in transfer, pregnancies and births.

Both Xu and Kim acknowledge that the low efficiency of cattle cloning will be a challenge. "It is true that currently cattle cloning efficiency is lower than dog cloning efficiency. However, during the past 10 years, we have been able to increase dog cloning efficiency from less than 1 percent up to more than 30 percent," Kim said.

He claimed that with the joint efforts by Chinese and Korean cloning scientists, the factory will produce increased efficiency.

A scandal involving Sooam's founder and chief scientist Hwang Woo-suk has also raised concerns for the factory's announcement.

According to media reports, Hwang, then a Seoul National University researcher, was dismissed by the university in 2006 and had two papers retracted from the Science journal following accusations that much of his data on somatic cell nuclear transfer was fabricated.

Xu argued that denying all of Hwang's achievements just due to a single scandal is not right. "Sooam's achievements in cloning in recent years are obvious," he noted, saying that Hwang succeeded in cloning eight endangered coyotes in 2011.

Since last summer, Sooam has collaborated with Russia's North Eastern Federal University on cloning the long-extinct mammoth.

Safety worries

The extraordinary claims made by Xu have prompted many Chinese to discuss the safety of cloned beef. On, a popular online forum, a thread on cloned beef has attracted more than 120 posts, expressing their cautious attitudes. 

Despite the high incidence of birth defects and early death among cloned animals, the official risk assessments from several countries including the US and Japan have all shown that food made from clones and their offspring is as safe as that from non-cloned animals.

Still some people reject cloned food. "I will accept cloned food when some others turn out to be healthy after eating it for 30 years," said one netizen.

Governmental attitudes vary globally. Many countries such as the US, Australia and Argentina allow animal cloning.

But the US Food and Drug Administration suggest that "it's important to remember that the primary purpose of clones is for breeding, not eating."

Xu said that's just because the public lacks understanding of cloning. "Many of us are not aware that many plants in the market such as strawberry, tomatoes and bananas, are nurtured through cloning," he said.

There are no cloning-related laws or regulations in China, except ethical conduct guidelines over human embryonic stem research jointly released by the science and health ministries in late 2003, which bans human reproductive cloning but allows stem cell research for therapeutic purposes.

In September last year, the European Parliament voted for a permanent ban on the cloning of all farm animals, imports of cloned livestock and the sale of food from such animals and their offspring.

Flavio Fergnani, Junior Officer of the European Food Safety Authority, told Southern Weekly in a recent report that they made the decision mainly based on the high mortality rate of cloned animals.

Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, was euthanized after being diagnosed with a progressive lung disease in 2003 at the age of 6. The Roslin Institute, which cloned the sheep, no longer undertakes research related to cloning of animals.

However, many cloners see the ban as irrational oppression.

Gábor Vajta, Adjunct Professor of Central Queensland University, Australia, and Honorary Professor of Beijing Genomics Institutes, believed it is a "typical example of bad, irrational decisions made by lawyers and politicians," as there's not a single piece of evidence that shows the harmful effect of cloned products.

He hopes the Chinese authorities will support domestic animal cloning and that Chinese cloning enterprises can make breakthroughs.

"A properly designed and well managed venture may prove the value of cloning and help to eliminate the suspicious and negative atmosphere around," he told the Global Times.

Jian Yi, an independent film-maker and cultural activist in China demanded the end of large-scale beef cattle cloning in an article published recently on the, saying that it will bring more pollution, food insecurity and health problems.

Xu is still ambitious. "Given the price of a Wagyu bull ready for slaughter, the value of the factory's annual output will be 12 billion yuan," he claimed.

Read more: Q&A with Gábor Vajta - Scientist optimistic about 'world's largest cloning factory'

Newspaper headline: 1 million cattle a year?

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