Thursday, April 26, 2012

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

On April 23rd, a lawsuit was filed against the AQHA by one of its members, Jason Abraham, along with two of this member's companies, Abraham & Veneklasen Joint Venture, and Abraham Equine Inc.  The subject of this suit is that the AQHA is violating anti-trust laws by not allowing the registration of clones.  AQHA rule 227 (a) states: Horses produced by any cloning process are not eligible for registration. Cloning is defined as any method by which the genetic material of an unfertilized egg or any embryo is removed and replaced by genetic material taken from another organism, added to/with genetic material from another organism or otherwise modified by any means in order to produce a live foal.

 The subject of cloning has been brought up repeatedly to the AQHA Stud Book Committee as well as the Board of Directors, and each time, it was voted that clones should be banned from registration.  Polls of the membership have also been taken, and the vast majority of members are not in favor of including clones in the registry.  Yet, Dr. Gregg Veneklasen and his cohorts have persisted.  Why?  Because they stand to make a lot of money cloning horses if they can get the stamp of legitimacy that registration papers provide. Anti-trust laws are meant to prohibit anti-competitive behavior (monopolies) and unfair business practices, and are intended to promote competition in the marketplace. Anti-trust laws also help protect both businesses and consumers from unethical practices and actions intended to cause harm. This suit assumes that AQHA must legitimize a practice that its members overwhelmingly do not want to include within its business practices, and could force a change that would only benefit as very, very small number of members.  I would also put forth that the inclusion of clones as registered Quarter Horses is in itself unethical and will cause harm to the breed's integrity.

As of right now, there is no way to discern the DNA of the original horse from that of its cloned copies.  And if a horse has been cloned more than once, there is no way to discern the parentage of the offspring, whether it came from the original, clone 1, clone 2, etc.  There has been talk of the fact that a very small amount of mitochondrial DNA may be present from the donor egg, but at the present time, the standard parentage DNA test that the AQHA uses to verify parentage cannot make these distinctions.  Allowing their registration could mean that if these clones began producing foals year after year, we would end up with hundreds and hundreds of horses that are genetically identical to each other.  How would this affect identification from horse to horse within the clones progeny?

Quarter Horses are already so closely bred that it is hard to find true outcrosses.  Certain lines are used over and over, which dramatically reduces the gene pool and increases the chances of replicating serious genetic abnormalities.  The clones already produced by Veneklasen have some serious genetic defects, and even the ones that don't have not lived up to the original's brilliance under saddle.  Why on God's green earth would we want to shrink the gene pool even more?  Genetic diseases that aren't even around yet could easily pop up with cloning to shrink the gene pool; you may be able to test an embryo for known genetic problems, such as HYPP or GBED, but what about physical deformities, like those that some of the Smart Little Lena clones have?  What about the fact that new genetic diseases can arise when a gene pool is artificially shrunken?  Genetic diversity is the key to producing stronger, healthier horses as well as finding new crosses that work better than those previously used.

I do not buy the argument that the resistance toward cloning is similar to previous resistance toward excessive white or toward embryo transfer, and that once cloning is made legitimate by registration, everyone will get on board with it.  This rule benefits only those who have a LOT of money to clone horses, access to DNA from horses famous enough to make it profitable, and the inclination to relive the past.  Embryo transfer is nothing like cloning.  Each foal produced by ET is a unique individual that is verifiable with DNA testing.  In reference to the excessive white rule, given the fact that AQHA is not a color registry, and that AQHA papers for the foundation horses of the breed were handed out fairly arbitrarily in the old days, it makes sense that some horses that are registered Quarter Horses are going to have genes that produce markings that are wilder than what some deem as typical of an American Quarter Horse.  Both the white rule and the ET rule have enhanced our breed, making it better and more inclusive and more profitable.  I think trying to lump cloning in with these two completely unrelated subjects is a way to slip it into our 'acceptable practices' while patronizing the public.  Do they think that we are all just too stupid to understand the difference between breeding clones and using embryo transfer?

Why not breed FORWARD?  Why not put all that money into developing unique genetics, rather than producing the same thing, over and over and over?  Every living stallion gets their shot to be great; yeah, some stallions have better odds by being born into the right barn, but the horses that are being cloned are horses that are proven, not underdogs with obscure bloodlines that 'might have made it, given different circumstances.'  Smart Little Lena, a horse that has been cloned several times, was undoubtedly a great horse. He earned over $743,000 in the cutting pen, he was one of only three horses to win the cutting triple crown (the Futurity, Super Stakes and the Derby), and sired 550 money earning offspring, who earned over $27,000,000 in the show pen.  He sired many, many great stallions who went on to be great sires themselves.  Aren't his accomplishments enough to be proud of?  Why is it necessary to try create another SLL?  Why?  Greed.  I bet there are plenty of folks who want a piece of that legacy so badly that it doesn't matter to them what the consequences are of cloning him.  It doesn't matter that 2 of the original clones have serious genetic abnormalities, 6 of them are nothing special and only one shows any promise under saddle.  And it doesn't matter what the long term effects of shrinking the gene pool would be as long as they get to make their money now.  The fact that this is an anti-trust suit is an admission that it revolves solely around the claimants desire to make money, not because it is the right thing to do, or because it would benefit the entire membership or the breed itself. 

Nothing is stopping cloned horses from competing in cutting, reining, or rodeo events, but the fact that very few have only proves that these horses are not as good as the original.  And the real money for those that own clones is in breeding them, so why would they tarnish that potential by showing them, and letting people see that they aren't as good as the original?

I understand that this is a free country and there is no law saying that people can't spend truckloads of money cloning their horses.  But they aren't Quarter Horses.  The AQHA is a member driven association, whose most important purpose is to protect and promote the breed.  It has been clearly and emphatically stated that clones are not welcome in the registry.  It is a privilege, not a right, to be a member, as well as to be granted papers for a horse.  There must be standards to which we are all held, and there must be some thinking being done as to what inclusion of clones will mean to the breed, not just in five or ten years, but in twenty or fifty or a hundred years. Cloning crosses a line that most people do not want crossed.  It seems to me that if the AQHA caved in to the lawsuit's demands, they would be violating anti-trust laws for most of their members.  I also think that now that this is a lawsuit, the case will be decided by a judge, and most likely a judge that is not a horse breeder, and doesn't necessarily understand that good horse breeding requires a long view of the future.  It isn't just about a person's right to make money now, it is about what we want our breed to look like down the road, what kind of horses we want our grandkids to ride, and what kind of quality of life we want for those horses. 

If you can't tell, this subject makes me quite angry.  It makes me sick that a very small group is forcing this issue through a lawsuit, forcing AQHA to spend time and money to defend itself over an issue that the majority of the membership does not want to accept. The greed driving this lawsuit to ruin the breed disgusts me.  That said, I do recognize that others have different views, and I'd love to hear them.  I'd love to hear someone give me a reason - other than money - that would convince me that registering clones is a good idea. 

What do you think about registering clones?  What effect do you think it will have on the Quarter Horse breed in the long term?