It's a cold February morning, and a thin layer of snow covers the ground at the Simplot ranch in Grand View, Idaho, about an hour south of Boise. Scott R. Simplot drives out to one of his nearby fields to see the cows giving birth. On the windswept plain, the tall, wiry 60-year-old asks a ranch hand how the new calves are doing. He smiles when he hears that the first 26 calves weigh in at about average for the breed, 78 pounds each. But these are no ordinary calves—they are the offspring of clones. "Great news," says Simplot.
This is the beginning of a grand experiment at J.R. Simplot Co., one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. Founded by Scott's father in 1923, it produces food, fertilizer, and livestock and is one of the first large beef-producing companies anywhere to clone cattle and breed them on a commercial scale. Neither clones nor their nonclone offspring are in the food-distribution system now. But if the Food & Drug Administration gives its approval, as expected, Simplot plans to bring beef from the offspring to market by next year. No other company has been nearly as aggressive in this controversial arena. "Simplot is a pioneer in many senses," says Michael MacNeil, a research geneticist at the Agriculture Dept.'s research service in Miles City, Mont.
The cloning effort is spearheaded by Scott, the youngest son of John Richard Simplot, now 98, one of America's legendary entrepreneurs. J.R. was an eighth-grade dropout who left home in the early 1920s at the age of 14 to set up his own pig farm—the first step to becoming a billionaire potato baron. Scott's personality is in striking contrast to that of his hard-driving dad. Unassuming, with a thoughtful, almost professorial air, he holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Scott chafed under his father's strict hand and ran away repeatedly in his youth, but he clearly inherited some of his father's drive. "I guess we do share the same DNA," concedes Scott, who is now chairman of J.R. Simplot.
WAVES OF PROTEST
Because he has invested energy and money in cloning, Scott is in the crosshairs of a national debate. Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997, people have debated the promise and pitfalls of trying to create genetic copies of animals. The controversy was reignited last December when the FDA issued a preliminary report concluding that meat and milk from clones are safe for consumption, opening the door for commercial sales. The FDA has asked for public comment on the issue through Apr. 2, but it appears likely the agency will give final approval by the end of this year.
That prospect has set off waves of complaints. In February about 100 protesters marched outside the U.S. Capitol, some dressed in cow costumes and chanting "Cloney Baloney." Their main demand is that meat and milk from clones be labeled as such. "Consumers have a right to know what's in their food," says Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Homemade (UL) ice cream, who was at the protest. The Consumer Federation of America and the National Farmers Union also joined the outcry. Supermarket chains such as Whole Foods (WFMI) Market and Wild Oats (OATS) Markets say they won't carry meat or milk from clones, and milk processors Dean Foods (DF) and Organic Valley Family of Farms insist they won't use cloning in their production, either.
This mystifies Scott Simplot. Cloning, he says, is just another kind of technological advance, like fertilizer, that we should be using to full advantage. He also objects to the idea of labeling food products from clones since that will kill the business before it starts. "The people who are having a fit over this are using technology every day in their lives," he says.
FRIES AND CHIPS
Technology is practically a religion to the Simplots. In 1941, J.R. bought a dehydrating machine, leading to his first big sale to the U.S. military: millions of pounds of dehydrated potatoes and onions during World War II. In 1953 he developed the frozen French fry and became the largest supplier of fries to McDonald's Corp. (MCD) Scott is following the same path as his father. Starting in 1980 he persuaded J.R. to put $18 million into semiconductor maker Micron Technology (MU). The value of that stake soared to more than $1 billion. Excitement over cloning today reminds him of the early days of computer chips. "There was a feeling that great things were going to happen," he says.
On this chilly morning, Scott steers his white Jeep Cherokee (DCX) south out of the ranch to show off the high-desert landscape where his cattle graze yearround. Vegetation is sparse, and steam rises from the ground in spots, signs of hot springs nearby. The Simplot family is one of the largest private landowners in the country, with about 270,000 acres stretching from southern Idaho down to Nevada. "Our cows fend for themselves out here," he says. "They calve here and walk miles foraging for food. They have to work hard for a living."
During a drive to Bruneau Canyon, clouds swoop in, and the Jeep is quickly surrounded by lightning and thunderclaps. A hailstorm leaves the road covered in a glistening white carpet, and then the sun breaks through the clouds. At times, Simplot stops the truck to look at the brands on the snow-covered cows to see whether they belong to any of the family's 16 ranches. He tells the story of a cow named Bruneau that stayed healthy for 17 years, unusually long for a ranch cow, and had 13 calves, more than twice the typical number. Her ability to thrive in rough country impressed Simplot—so he cloned her. "The miracle is that nature has preselected her, and now we can reproduce her, something we couldn't have done before," he explains.
Over the past four years, Simplot's crew has cloned 22 head of cattle. They take cells from donor animals, fuse them with eggs that have been stripped of genetic material, and place the embryos in cows. The calves are born after the usual nine months and are genetically identical to their donors.
Sounds simple enough, but cloning is no trivial task, with a success rate of about 17% at best. Each clone costs about $16,000 to produce, so cows and bulls are selected for traits that are particularly important—one is cloned because it produces double the usual 2,300 gallons of milk a year, another because of its high-grade meat, with plenty of marbling within lean muscle. The clones of these animals are then bred with ordinary cattle to produce as many calves as possible. Today the ranch is expecting close to 100 offspring from two male clones bred to uncloned females.
Clearly, Simplot is taking a huge gamble. If protesters gain traction and the FDA rejects food from clones, his investment will be wiped out. Even if such products are approved, labeling of cloned meat and milk could make them a difficult sell. Politicians are already lining up against cloning. "The American people don't want this. They find it repugnant," says Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has introduced a bill called the Cloned Food Labeling Act.
One common criticism is that the science is still new—the first cow was cloned in 1999. And animal rights advocates complain that clones can be deformed and often die at birth. In any case, polls suggest most consumers plan to steer clear of clones. The Gallup Organization reports that over 61% of Americans think it's immoral to clone animals. The Pew Initiative on Food & Biotechnology found that a similar majority say they won't buy cloned milk even if the FDA approves. But Scott stands firm in his belief that we are at the dawn of a new era, one with stronger animals that produce better food. "It would be a travesty for us to know as much as we do," he says, "and not be able to bring it to the table."
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By Pallavi Gogoi