THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
IS AG SLIPPING INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE?
Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
Minnesota Zoo Exhibit Educates Public About Cloning And Technology
by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
After almost six years of writing this column in Agri Marketing magazine, I knew it would come to this: writing about clones. Now, the topic of clones isn’t new or necessarily unusual today. But heck, I’m an identical twin. And I know that’s not the same as cloning, but it’s as close as I’m ever going to get - I think.
It’s spooky when I think about the comparisons to Cookies and Cream and Carbon and Copy - the two sets of Holstein heifers cloned by Infigen, Inc., of DeForest, Wis., that have been shown at the Minnesota Zoo in suburban Minneapolis. They are part of an educational (some might say public relations) program designed to teach the public about the technology. Cookies and Cream were at the zoo during the summer of 2000. Carbon and Copy are at the zoo now.
The similarities to the heifers and my twin sibling are spooky. The heifers were put on public display before hundreds of thousands of curious fans. My brother Dan and I, at the age of six, were put on public display playing the "Beer Barrel Polka" on the accordion in front of thousands (well maybe hundreds or dozens).
We were raised on a farm. So were the cloned heifers. Dan and I used to fool people (because we looked alike) by trading places with each other. I’ll bet if you went to the zoo today you couldn’t tell Carbon and Copy apart.
But enough of this. It’s scary enough to make Rod Serling turn over in his grave. I wonder if he was ever cloned? Well, that’s a column for another time, another place.
CLONING AS A BUSINESS
The business of animal cloning is growing today. And although the concept of cloning humans is steeped in controversy, animal cloning has been around for a few years. In fact, livestock producers can go online and order a clone of an award-winning cow or bull if so desired. Infigen has already successfully cloned 100 cattle and more than 30 pigs since 1997. In its promotional materials, for example, Infigen tells livestock producers that they can "protect against ever losing your animal’s genetics by taking advantage of Genmark’s (a technology service of Infigen) tissue/cell harvesting and storage service." The company says it’s the first step to ensuring "your animal’s genetics are available for later cloning."
But with all new technologies, there are always groups that like to create controversy and cloning is no exception. Infigen decided to take a pro-active approach in its educational efforts on cloning. Just how did the company choose to handle this situation? Let’s let Jesús Martínez, Infigen’s vice president of marketing, explain.
"We decided to work with the Minnesota Zoo as a venue to educate the public, focusing on a program to teach about the advantages of the technology," says Martínez. "The zoo was opening a new addition (the Wells Fargo Family Farm) to teach children and adults about farm animals and pique interest in preserving farms in Minnesota. We felt it was a great opportunity for us to teach people that cloning is just another technological and management tool available for use in animal agriculture and human healthcare."
Martínez says technology has always been an important component in animal agriculture. "First it was artificial insemination in the ’50s, then embryo transfers became popular in the ’80s, followed by in-vitro fertilization the past 10 years. Cloning is just another management tool made available by recent advances in technology. Believe it or not, one of our biggest challenges is to educate consumers about what cloning is and how it can benefit them in the future. We’re making a genetic duplicate of another animal. We’re making an exact copy."
THE ZOO PROMOTION
The animals at the zoo are part of this new exhibit. More than 650,000 zoo-goers visited the farm exhibit last year. Martínez and zoo officials are hoping that number passes one million by the end of summer 2001.
Infigen has done considerable publicity surrounding the cloned animals at the zoo. The zoo itself has not. "In the spring, we had a special event called Farm Babies, says Kelly Lessard, public relations coordinator for the zoo. "Each year we invite the media to the zoo to see the new animals. We focused on the farm exhibit this year because it was new to the zoo. Reporters were able to hold and feed the new babies, including piglets, ducklings, chicks, a calf and pigmy goats. Minnesota Zoo guests participated in a "Name the Filly" contest. While at the farm, guests also were able to see Carbon and Copy, our clones, up close."
At the end of July, John Deere Days, sponsored by the equipment company, will focus efforts on all aspects of farming at the zoo, complete with curriculum offerings. It’s likely this effort will touch on cloning and how it benefits agriculture.
Martínez says people don’t quite know what cloning means to them. "This whole educational campaign is designed to simplify for people what cloning is all about."
OTHER MEDIA/EDUCATIONAL EFFORTS
Infigen is not content to stand still in its educational efforts. The company may provide cloned pigs for the zoo before the summer season ends. This fall at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., it will debut the world’s first set of cloned cows that are currently in milk production.
Another part of that educational process occurred on Christmas Eve 2000 when Eve was born, the first clone animal born in the world from a cloned heifer. "The more we discuss the issue, the more people (and the media) understand it’s just another technology used in agriculture," Martínez says. "Letting the media know and understand this helps us explain what it means to agriculture. We’re a responsible company and we take very seriously our role in education of every segment of our society surrounding this technology.
"We want to do more than just produce animals," Martínez says. "We want to talk about how cloning technology can benefit farmers and consumers alike. You can never stop educating. That’s our objective. A lot of media didn’t know us one year ago. Now many do. It’s much better for us to be part of the process of agricultural technology than avoid discussions about it."
The national media has paid some attention to Infigen as well. The September issue of Fortune magazine did a piece on the company. Recently, other pieces have appeared in BioWorld Today, Financial Times, the Washington Post and there’s been a host of local daily newspaper, radio and television hits.
Infigen markets its agricultural products under the trademark name of Genmark. Visit www.infigen.com and www.genmarkag.com for additional information.
Meanwhile, companies like Infigen and organizations like the Minnesota Zoo will continue their efforts at teaching consumers about technologies like cloning. A venue like the zoo presents tremendous opportunities for publicity. Now it’s up to those with a vested interest in the technology to make sure the media is informed.
And, after all is said and done, and another column is put to bed, the real question is this: Who wrote this column - Den or Dan? Only the "Twilight Zone’s" Serling knows for sure! AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.