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.
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."
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.