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Send in the Clones

Jan
21
2008

“After years of detailed study and analysis, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals. There was insufficient information for the agency to reach a conclusion on the safety of food from clones of other animal species, such as sheep.” — FDA press announcement

CowLet’s apply a little logic to the issue of cloning animals. First, cloning is not genetic engineering; it is not about transferring genes from an eggplant to a cow. It’s about taking the nucleus of an animal’s cell, embedding it in an unfertilized egg, and starting the natural process of embryonic growth. There is no logical reason why the meat or milk of a cloned animal should be any more dangerous than that of any other animal. And in some six years of study, that’s what the FDA has concluded. If you think about it, identical twins are simply clones that arise naturally during gestation.

You can quibble with a few of the FDA’s assertions. For instance, according to an article by Rick Weiss at the Washington Post, “agency scientists decided to use the same simple but effective standard used by farmers since the dawn of agriculture: If a farm animal appears in all respects to be healthy, then presume that food from that animal is safe to eat.” It’s worth noting in this context that cattle suffering from mad-cow disease appear just fine until they don’t. And we know that government oversight of meat processing facilities is a joke: We’ve already had our first meat recall of the year.

It’s also unlikely that you’ll be offered meat or milk from cloned animals any time soon. It’s just too expensive a process. Instead the technique will be used to produce breeding animals and it will be their offspring, naturally produced (that’s “natural” if you consider artificial insemination “natural”) that will be enter our food chain. And nature is pretty ruthless about eliminating flawed animals, so if an offspring of a clone survives long enough to become a full-grown dairy cow or steer it’s highly unlikely it has any serious problems. In short, I think the FDA is correct in it’s assessment. But there are other issues.

Social issues first. The FDA has stated it won’t require that cloned meat or milk be labeled as such, but may allow non-cloned meat or milk to be labeled as “not cloned.” I hope they do. Although I see no problems with such products, I understand that others are concerned and they should have the option of knowing what they’re buying. There are also religious issues — for example, is cloned meat Kosher? These issues matter but there’s a larger and more damning problem, the increasing lack of diversity in what we eat.

Cloning is another step towards monoculture. Genetic diversity means that if I’m susceptible to a particular disease and you’re not then the human species has a better chance of survival. Any reduction in the gene pool increases the risk that a single fault, – whether it’s disease susceptibility or a congenital defect – could wipe out or seriously harm even a large population of animals or crops. When an entire farm is populated with genetically identical animals you have a highly fragile system that’s more susceptible to the domino effect – a single nudge from an illness or infection would cascade through the population and wipe it out.

Now, there’s a case to be made for using cloning to, say, producing pigs that are naturally more resistant to disease and require fewer antibiotics as they’re being raised. Cloning would be a way of speeding up the development of such a pig.

But care needs to be taken to keep the overall population genetically diverse. Sadly, though given its record in other areas, our food production system – meat inspections – is unlikely to encourage that use of cloning and will instead use the technology to increase production while reducing the gene pool. We won’t end up with healthier pigs, we’ll get even leaner and more flavorless pork. And that’s a damned shame.

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