More than 200 years ago, British economist Thomas Malthus famously suggested that the earth would run out of food resources to feed a burgeoning global population. Now, thanks to advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering, we could soon be talking about exponential increases in the earth’s food supply rather than the “arithmetical” increases predicted by Malthus.
China, for example, is taking steps to genetically engineer its own food supply rather than growing it the boring, old traditional way. In 2016, Boyalife Group plans to open a new commercial cloning facility in the northern China city of Tianjin to “manufacture” up to 1 million head of cattle each year by 2020. The logic is simple: Chinese cattle farmers are unable to keep up with the nation’s beef demand and are turning to new biotechnologies for the solution.
The commercial cloning project is a joint venture between Sinica (a subsidiary of Boyalife Group), Peking University’s Institute of Molecular Medicine, the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine, and South Korea’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation. The plan is to finish completion of the $31 million commercial cloning facility in the first half of 2016, and then start production of 100,000 cattle per year. Within five years, the facility plans to ramp up to 1 million cattle a year.
That’s what exponential growth of the food supply looks like: 0 to 100,000 to 1 million in five years.
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The math here is fascinating because the Chinese are obviously trying to get their hands on as much beef as possible, to the point where you can now fire up your laptop in China and order chilled, ready-to-eat beef online from Australia. And in July, the Chinese entered into a live cattle export agreement with Australia to meet its rapidly growing beef demand. Starting in 2016, China plans to spend as much as $1.5 billion per year to import 1 million head of livestock cattle annually from the Aussies. The first cattle were shipped off to China earlier this month in huge crates.
You do the math – 1 million cattle is exactly the same amount Boyalife Group is hoping to produce in its new commercial cloning facility by 2020. So you can view this as a bit of a technological hedge – why buy your food from someone else for $1.5 billion a year (and fly cows in planes!) if you can reverse-engineer your own more easily and more cheaply?
And it’s not just in China where new biotechnology innovations are taking off as a potential solution to food shortages. While Europe remains a staunch supporter of commercial cloning bans on animals, the door is starting to open in the United States, where the U.S. FDA finally (after 19 years!) approved the introduction of genetically engineered salmon. In doing so, the AquAdvantage salmon became the first genetically engineered animal to win U.S. approval for human consumption.
Again, do the math and you can see why new synthetic biology innovations create the possibility for exponential food supply growth rather than arithmetic food supply growth. The genetically engineered salmon grows faster than other salmon, thanks to an inserted gene, meaning that you can get more salmon, faster, than if you waited around for fish to grow the old-fashioned way.
Considering that the U.S. must import more than 95 percent of its salmon from far-away locales such as Chile and Norway, this is actually a big deal. And the company making this possible – AquaBounty – is not some huge multinational, it’s a small company with 21 employees.
However, there are a number of thorny philosophical, moral and ethical questions to answer. Is meat from a test tube the same as meat from a real cow? Is eating a genetically engineered “Frankenfish” as safe as eating a regular fish?
Without the right controls in place, of course, we’re talking about potentially opening up a Pandora’s box with all these synthetic biology and genetic engineering innovations. The reason is the following: Once you start cloning cattle for beef consumption, why not start cloning other animals?
Glad you asked, because the Chinese have already thought of that. At their new commercial cloning facility in Tianjin, they also plan to clone racehorses, sniffer dogs and pet dogs. Because, well, they can. The Chinese have been experimenting with cloning cattle, sheep and pigs since 2000.
In 2014, as a proof of concept of what’s possible with commercial cloning, Boyalife cloned three pure-blooded Tibetan mastiff puppies. Oh, and one of the partners in the cloning facility – Sooam Biotech – is also working on cloning a woolly mammoth.
According to Boyalife’s chief executive, Xu Xiaochun, the plan is to move on from cloning cattle for food purposes to cloning primates for research purposes. And from primates, guess what the next step would be? Yep, humans.
“The technology is already there,” Xu says. “If this is allowed, I don’t think there are other companies better than Boyalife that make better technology.”
Right now, the company is just being “self-restrained” about cloning humans until all those bothersome moral and ethical questions go away.
Which brings us back to Malthus. Back in 1798, he hit on an issue that’s still relevant today: the need for a geometrical solution to an arithmetical problem. In this case, the “problem” is population growth. If population grows geometrically, but food grows arithmetically, maybe the solution is an exponential technology capable of keeping up with this growth. (Especially if we start adding cloned humans to the population mix.)
Consider that the first cloned mammal – Dolly the Sheep – was “born” in 1996. Almost exactly 10 years later, in 2005, we had Snuppy, the first cloned dog. Ten years later, in 2016, we could get our first big batch of cloned cattle.
Then, 10 years later, we could be talking about millions of cloned sheep and millions of cloned dogs. That sounds like exponential growth to me.
Dominic Basulto wrote this for The Washington Post.