A 1,320-pound steer named "Doc" was named grand champion of the 4-H Market Beef Show at the Iowa State Fair recently. There is nothing remarkable about this; by all accounts Doc was a deserving champion and his handler, young Tyler Faber, was an accomplished showman.
What is remarkable about the story is how Doc came into this world.
Unlike all the other steers in the competition, and nearly all steers everywhere, Doc was not the result of a mating between a bull and a cow. Instead, he was cloned from an ear punch taken from the grand champion market steer at the 2008 Iowa State Fair. The 2008 show champion was auctioned off at the Sale of Champions after the competition and slaughtered, so the 4-H kids who competed in the event two years ago can be excused for thinking that the competition slate would be wiped clean for future events.
They were wrong. Genetically, at least, the steer that was best in show two years ago (and is long dead) won again this year.
It turns out that Tyler Faber’s father, David, owns Trans Ova Genetics, a livestock reproduction business based in Sioux City, Iowa. Bovance, a joint venture between Trans Ova Genetics and a cloning business named ViaGen, produced Doc. Bovance also purchased the steer for a record $45,000 at the 2010 Sale of Champions. Doc got a reprieve from the traditional winner’s trip to the slaughterhouse due to a voluntary ban on introducing meat from cloned animals into the public food chain.
Market Beef Show officials apparently learned that Doc was a clone two days after the steer was named grand champion. Late disclosure was not an issue for Doc and his owners, though, because there are no rules prohibiting entering a clone in the 4-H show or requiring notification that a show entrant is a clone. There were post-competition questions about the ethics of showing an animal produced through an expensive technology unavailable to most 4-H kids, but whether 4-H rules will be changed remains an open question.
Cloning has come a long way since the days of Dolly the sheep and advances in technology are not limited to food animals. Consider the frustration of losing the Kentucky Derby to clones of Secretariat every year, or facing a clone of My My in the show ring decades after the great five-gaited mare dominated the World’s Championship at the Kentucky State Fair. Neither of these examples will happen because The Jockey Club and the American Saddlebred Horse Association are among the many breed registries that do not permit the registration of cloned horses.
Many equestrian competitions are open to both registered and non-registered horses, however. Classes for hunters, jumpers, and dressage horses, as well as eventing and combined driving competitions, may be open to both registered horses subject to no-cloning rules and to non-registered clones.
There are ethical and practical issues, including the cost and availability of technology, when cloned horses are allowed to compete. The real question, though, is whether the goal of breeding horses is to maintain the status quo or to improve the breed.
An editorial in the August 23 New York Times summed up the situation regarding Doc and the Iowa State Fair: "Cloning can only ever replicate what is, while biological breeding . . . continues to offer what hasn’t yet been." And the latter is what selective breeding is all about.
Should all breed registries be open to cloned horses?
Should those cloned horses be allowed to compete?