Cashmere is known for its rarity, hence the hefty price tag on your cashmere sweater. But there’s a chance that it could even become rarer than it is now. There’s a threat in the cashmere industry and yet there might also be a solution that could cure all…

The rarity of cashmere wool comes from the fact that it is created from the wool on a goat’s undercoat that only grows in winter. One goat produces as much as four ounces annually, resulting in not nearly as much production as the other fabrics that we can get. Its rarity is what makes cashmere ever so luxurious.

If it’s that hard to get more production, since it takes 2 goats to create one cashmere sweater, then the question is “why not double up the goats?”

This is where the problem begins…

Mongolia is the second largest cashmere producer, standing only behind China. These cashmere goats have been quite a great source of income for Mongolians. So, increasing the goat population is definitely already on the Mongolian herders’ to-do list. However, there’s an underlying cause to why doubling up the goat population is not enough.

The climate change.

Back in 2010, CNN put this crisis into the spotlight. They interviewed a Mongolian herder who revealed that the grassland was getting worse year after year. The change of nature had created less quality of the grassland. The aforementioned fact about the profitable cashmere as an income source also has made more Mongolians opt out of being herders. Things became complicated when the decreased quality of the grasslands because of the climate change met the increased number of goats there. According to NPR, the climate change has caused 4-degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperature in Mongolia and the goats also take their part in decreasing the grasslands’ quality.

These are the reasons why goats are not earth-friendly, as described by Clean by Design:

  • They consume more than 10% of their body weight daily in roughage

  • They eat very close to the roots thus destroying plants

  • Their stiletto-like hoofs also damage topsoil and grass root system

Although it’s always possible to get the grasslands green again naturally but goats have rapid reproduction, meaning that they can have multiple births at a time. So, with this rapid reproduction increasing the population of goats, many more goats will be around and the grasslands will still be just as bad as it is now.

Now you see why cashmere production has raised a controversy between cashmere industry and environmentalists. It’s undeniable that cashmere production is not easy on the environment.

People in the cashmere industry are also concerned by this, as it will soon be a threat to their business growth. Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) has teamed up with companies, governments, and NGOs to establish the first Sustainable Cashmere Standard. NOYA Fibers also partnered with The Nature Conservancy to implement sustainable grazing practices in Mongolia.

The cashmere crisis went on and in 2016, Kuow.org updated the situation of the Mongolian grasslands with bad news. The demand is still high for cashmere, but we cannot also neglect the ever de-greening grasslands back in Mongolia. Everyone, from the herders, cashmere, and fashion companies to environmentalists have been facing this dilemma and trying their best to find a solution. Their efforts are still considered too small to maintain the sustainability of both the cashmere business and the environment. If anything, a possible quick way to solve this issue is to lower either the quality or the quantity of cashmere. If so, you’ll probably have to take more serious care of your cashmere sweaters in the case that it will be even rarer in the future.

It may not be soon enough since the cashmere business is hanging by the thread, but as the clock is ticking, we better come up with a solution as fast as we can.

Now, genome editing has helped the Chinese herders in Shaanxi province with producing  hairier goats that result in much more cashmere production. While we also have to take serious care of the Mongolian grasslands and any other grasslands out there, with genome-editing, we don’t have to worry about the increased number of goats while at the same time worrying about the ever de-greening grasslands.

A group of scientists from Shaanxi Provincial Engineering and Technology Research Center for Shaanbei in China has successfully created the hairier goats by using CRISPR. Fibroblast growth factor 5 (FGF5) is responsible for determining the hair length in some animals, including goats and humans. The scientists edited the FGF5, along with MSTN, which also made those goats end up with more meat along with more hair. By disrupting a single gene, scientists have found not only longer cashmere, but the edited goats also yield a third more cashmere than the normal goats. Crispr cas-9 that the scientists used has increased more length and quantity of cashmere from one goat but not the diameter of the cashmere fiber. This modification is also likely to be transmitted to the offspring of the Crispr modified goats.

There’s no information yet about the quality of the cashmere from gene-edited goats being higher than the normal ones. Although the scientists say that there is no hair differentiation caused by the genetic modification. Some international regulators doubt the authenticity of the cashmere as the goats’ natural mutations are edited. However, the scientists aren’t planning to commercialize the edited goats anytime soon. There are other tests that they want to do in order to know if there are other effects caused by the mutations. One of the scientists even said that this could take years of work.

So, once this is commercialized, it will really improve the genetics in goats. This research means a lot to Shaanxi, as they are well-known for their cashmere production. We can think of CRISPR goats as the win-win solution for everyone involved in the business.

The cashmere industry has kept expanding since 2011 both in Mongolia and China. In Mongolia, the high demand of cashmere has resulted in over 4000 tons in 2011 and escalated to 8900 tons in 2015. Last year, the cashmere industry in Mongolia successfully made their $9.6 million revenue — so far the best on records — from their exports. China, they exported more than 200,000 kg of cashmere by October 2016 to 9 countries. The cashmere industry is likely to expand in the next year after looking at its rapid growth.

With the rapid growth and high demands, it indeed has attracted young entrepreneurs to enter the industry. Matt Scanlan decided to set foot into the industry after his visit to Mongolia in 2012. Amazed by the culture and the charisma of it, he told Bloomberg how every herder knows the name of each goat. He is currently the CEO of Nadaam Cashmere where the aim is not only to sell high quality cashmere at fair prices, but also to give back to the Mongolian grasslands and society. His company actively gives veterinary care to goats. They’re now planning to build fences there to help prevent the climate change because of excessive grazing. Their yarning process in Italy also causes no damage to the environment by using clean energy. More than just a charity, Nadaam’s business focuses on sustainability as a business practice.

It is surprising to know how the population of these cashmere goats are standing side by side with the climate change and taking their toll on the environments. To achieve the goals of people involved in this issue, we have to decrease the number of goats to save the environment without losing the number of production of cashmere. The math is simple, but putting it into action may not be. Now, this is the scene where CRISPR goats would save us from the cashmere doomsday.

With CRISR goats, we would have control over their reproduction, minimize the danger their hooves cause to the environment, and get the same, or possibly much more production of cashmere. The reproduction control we have over the CRISPR goats is creating these opportunities below:

  1. Everyone involved in this issue could calm down and take baby steps towards the goals they want. The heat between the cashmere industry, fashion companies, and environmentalists could melt down with CRISPR goats. The cashmere industry and fashion companies could safely continue their business while at the same supporting the environmentalists to help the environment go back green again.

  2. CRISPR goats yield more cashmere than normal goats. In numbers, from the CRISPR goats that are still in the labs, there’s a 92.75 gr of cashmere increase from each 4 month old CRISPR goat on average. The length of cashmere is increased too.

  3. In Mongolia, sand has replaced the grass where the grass used to grow. However, goats eat almost anything even when there’s a lack of grass patches. This means the herders have to buy the grains to feed the goats. If the herders could have as much cashmere production with half the number of normal goats, such as with CRISPR goats, then they wouldn’t have to bother buying food supplies in the city. Budget wise, it’s more than just good.

  4. What’s good can be better. Even when goats are willing to eat anything, their favorite food would still be grass. There’s barely even grass anymore on Mongolian land, and it has raised concerns about the quality of cashmere. When CRISPR goats arrive, maybe they would have to be fed by the mix of grains while waiting for the grass to grow again. When the environment has finally healed, they will be able to eat the grass again, as it will just get better for herders and the goats themselves.

China is so supportive in gene-editing projects that they even have tried it on human embryos. If one day these scientists prove that there’s no harm and only improvement in the gene-edited goats to cashmere production, China might soon utilize the gene-edited cashmere. In addition, TIME magazine has named these CRISPR goats as one of the 100 Most Influential Animals of 2016 even before they come out to play.

We’ve taken a look at the opportunities CRISPR goats might bring when they arrive. But there’s still one more problem.

The GMO products controversy.

CRISPR may be new here, but many breeders have already implemented different techniques to develop and refine animals by doing selective breeding. An improvement made by selective breeding that we can all still relate to it from the dairy cows in the US. Traditional selective breeding has reduced the number of cows from 25.6 million in 1944 to just 9 million today with increased milk productivity by as much as 1.6 times. With that in mind, think how much cashmere can be improved faster through gene editing?

Alison Van Eenennaam, an expert in animal genetics and biotechnology at the University of California Davis says, “Thanks to improvements made in the dairy industry through traditional breeding, a glass of milk today is associated with just one third of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to producing a glass of milk in the 1940s.”

Now we can see that the problems with dairy cows are much likely the same with cashmere goats. Both the environment and animal welfare are on edge because they’re on the opposite side from each other, and the climate change’s taking over. As traditional breeding has improved our livestock and contributed to the environment sustainability, so could CRISPR.

It’s true that many more tests have to be done and preparations have to be made before they come out on the stage. When it comes to cashmere goats, just like the dairy cows, it is more than just a change of appearance like the micropigs which would aim to be the next it-pet. Many more drug and food animals are being tested in the labs with CRISPR to improve their and our own lives.

We can’t really talk yet about the risks of the CRISPR goats’ existence, as many things will soon be revealed through the continuous work of the scientists. When it comes to the regulations, greenlights from the FDA have been given to some genome-edited plants but never before to animals. The FDA proposed regulations for genome editing products in January which says all animals whose genomes have been intentionally altered must be examined for safety, which is similar to the process of approving drugs. Many researchers aren’t happy about these proposed regulations. Alison Van Eenennaam said to Nature that this could mean a loss of interest in developing gene-edited animals in businesses, universities, and NGOs.

Surely, many fashion companies have acted on the decreased quality of grassland in Mongolia just as Naadam does. CRISPR will definitely boost their pro-environmental activities and many other aspects in cashmere industry. However, there are still many things to be tested, reviewed, and considered. But if the development is supported by many, especially from the governments and communities, maybe in the next 5 or 10 years the cashmere clothing business will be the next big thing. CRISPR will always be developed for its use. Who knows? Maybe once we accept cashmere from CRISPR goats, scientists could create a stronger cashmere fibers, or make it anti-wet and able to give more heat. Anything sounds possible. We’ll know that after the approval of these soon to be super goats.

Image from flickr by Paul Esson


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