Drive a half hour north from the tiny town of High Prairie, Alberta, and you are confronted with a landscape that has changed very little in the last few thousand years: a cold plain stretches in every cardinal direction, spotted with hardy vegetation and crossed by swift-running streams that feed the region’s many lakes. This is the northern edge of the Boreal plains, where wheat fields begin their slow transition into the Canadian taiga and the immense empty spaces of the north. It’s a sparsely populated territory, peopled by close-knit families that work mainly in agriculture or the booming oil and gas industry. When 20,000 acres of farmland was purchased by a South Korean mega-corporation in September 2013, it was unusual enough to raise eyebrows.
The purchase marked the Canadian debut of the CJ Group (씨제이㈜) the newest (and perhaps unlikeliest) landowner in High Prairie. CJ is a company that Koreans describe as a “chaebol”: a corporate entity whose size and influence make it a major player in the Korean economy, and whose many independent divisions cover industries ranging from construction firms to restaurant chains. In Korea it’s possible to spend a day visiting a clinic, buying a car, and seeing a movie without ever stepping into a business outside of CJ’s control.
The purchase of such a vast swath of land by an unknown entity like CJ set alarm bells ringing in High Prairie, where residents have fought repeatedly to keep new mineral extraction and pipeline projects away from their doorsteps. After local concern reached a fever pitch in December, the company released a blandly reassuring statement saying that the land would be used solely for ‘experimental agriculture techniques’. While the declaration eased local tension, it also raised a host of new questions: though CJ Group includes agricultural subsidiaries, none of them operate outside of Korea. More unusual yet, the High Prairie farmlands are held under the name of Sooam Biotech Research - the company’s biotechnology subcontractor.
Sooam Biotech is a name that appears frequently in both research journals and the Korean press, often in a less than complimentary context. Despite operating under South Korea’s extremely permissive bioethics laws, Sooam has managed to repeatedly run afoul of industry regulators, and was deeply involved in Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s famously discredited human cloning research. Sooam survived the scandal and has managed to turn cloning into a viable commercial industry, creating sniffer dogs for use by police and military forces, as well as replicating designer pets for private buyers. They recently grabbed international headlines when they announced their most ambitious program yet: cloning a mammoth.
While it may seem incredible, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support the viability of mammoth cloning. An extraordinarily well preserved mammoth was discovered in Siberia by a Russo-Japanese team in 2012, and after being presented to the public in Yokohoma prefecture last year it was sent to private laboratories in Seoul for the express purpose of attempted cloning. The team working to reconstruct the Mammoth’s DNA includes CJ’s former human embryo researcher Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, but since the project began in May they have remained silent on the progress of their work.
If Sooam is following through with its stated plans to clone a mammoth, they are doing so quietly. According to Robert Gillingham, a Bioethics researcher at McGill University in Montreal, the secrecy surrounding the project is unsurprising. “Cloning is a subject that still attracts sensational media attention in North America, though its use has become more widely accepted in South Korea. Complicated projects like creating a mammoth, which depend upon reconstructing 10,000 year old DNA and ‘filling in the gaps’ where that information is missing, will almost inevitably result in defective results. If previous projects are any guide, they will only make a public announcement when they have a living, healthy animal.”
According to Gillingham, Canada’s restrictive bioethics laws would not present an insurmountable problem for a company like CJ. “We have very clear laws in this country on genetic engineering of humans, but for animals, it’s more of a grey area. There is certainly no law against owning genetically modified pets or livestock – if the majority of the work is done in Korea, I can’t see any legal obstacles.”
The Seoul press office for Sooam, normally eager to discuss the company’s many upcoming ventures, clams up when the subject of their Albertan properties is raised. A verbatim repetition of the statement given to High Prairie residents is provided, though curiously the Korean-language version replaces “experimental agriculture” with ‘silheom gachug’ (실험 가축)’, “experimental livestock”. While the company’s pre-planned response makes it clear that they are disinclined towards discussing the project, the Alberta venture is no secret in Seoul – in fact, it’s attracted a great deal of interest in Korean-language newspapers and blogs. The most popular theory is that Sooam is building a ‘Jurassic Park’ on the prairies.
In Korea, there is one CJ Group employee who is happy to talk about the project: Mr. Park Sei-hoon, the man whose “Early Sun Diet” company became tremendously popular in 2010 and was acquired by CJ Group that same year. Mr. Park is quick to emphasize that the Early Sun Diet is significantly different from The Paleo Diet (a trademarked term), though the two share a startling resemblance in their advocacy for fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, fruit, fungi, and roots. Coincidentally, they also both espouse the notion that human genetics has remained unchanged for the past few thousand years, and that health-conscious eaters should return to eating foods that their ancestors consumed.
Given Mr. Sei-hoon’s dietary interests, it’s unsurprising that he is an enthusiastic advocate for the mammoth program. “Molecular cloning in South Korea is the most advanced in the world. I have absolute confidence that they will be able to recreate these extraordinary creatures. Not only will they be of interest to zoos, but there will be a strong demand to incorporate them into a diet program, as well as on the menus of more adventurous restaurants.”
When asked if CJ Group’s land purchase in Alberta is related to the mammoth program, Mr. Sei-hoon declined to comment. He noted, however, that as part of the natural historical range of the mammoth, Alberta would make an excellent choice for raising the animals. “You cannot raise such a creature in Korea – we simply do not have the climate for it, particularly if it were the first of its kind. The Canadian taiga was formerly part of the mammoth’s range and would be the safest place to naturally re-introduce the creature, much as the nutritious bison was re-introduced to the American prairies in the 1990s.”
Back in High Prairie, the tastefully stencilled sign on the gate outside of CJ’s Alberta properties advises the curious in Korean, English, and French that the farmland is under video surveillance and trespassing is strictly forbidden. Unlike the distant neighboring properties, there is no hint of human activity – at a time when most farmers are preparing for spring cultivation, the CJ fields are eerily silent. In patches where the snow has melted, hardy taiga grass has begun to reclaim the land.