adventures in craft beer and real food

Monday, January 08, 2007

Attack of the clones

For those of you who haven't yet heard, the FDA issued a statement last week that concludes that milk and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. While the press has taken this as an announcement that the FDA has conclusively decided that cloned meat is safe, and many bloggers have responded with alarm, things might not be so bad as they appear.

For starters, the FDA is not making this stuff up. From a regulatory standpoint, the question of the safety of cloned meat is a valid one. The FDA is charged with investigating the issue and reaching a decision. It seems the FDA consulted the professional literature on the subject and found insubstantial evidence that cloned meat is unhealthy. In response, they drafted a risk assessment, risk management plan, and guidelines for industry. And issued the press release that started this whole debate.

At first the issue seemed downright bizarre to me. After all, who would want to clone farm animals? Who is pushing for this and why? The who half, at least, is easy: the mega-dairy industry.

In the conventional dairy industry, revenue is proportional to the volume of milk produced. The more milk is produced, the higher your profits can be with the same size herd. Farmers from top to bottom do everything to maximize production. They feed cows the bovine equivalent of Science Diet. They restrict and often deny access to pasture. The milk production of each cow is often closely monitored until the cow's production starts to decline at the age of four, at which time it is slaughtered. There's nothing wrong with wanting to make the best living you can. And if consumers ultimately wanted their milk and meat from pastoral settings, they would demand it with their wallets. However, cloning offers the possibility of refining this a step further. A good cow can be cloned. Then these clones can be mated to produce an entire herd of cows that produce a lot of milk.

One source has said that the cost of cloning one animal is something in the ball park of $20,000. As a result, the idea is that farmers would clone a small handful of animals and then breed the clones the old fashioned way. When these clones get older, farmers would like to be able to sell these animals for slaughter. Thus, the chance that an individual would consume a clone is ridiculously small.

However, there are many reasons why farm animals should not be cloned.

The first reason that jumps out at me is genetic diversity. Traditionally, milk and beef came from the kinds of cattle in the local community. Due to slit-throat competition, many of these farmers have opted for breeds that have a milk production that is copious and has a desirable fat content. Today, one breed of cow -- the holstein -- accounts for over 90% of the US dairy herd. Genetic diversity ought to be preserved as a buffer against disease if for no other reason. The cloning of livestock only exacerbates this problem by reducing the genetic diversity in that one breed of cow.

The cloning of animals for food pushes the US away from the rest of the world, which would seem to be bad economic policy. The US is already on thin ice with our "if you don't look for it, you won't find it" approach to BSE. If the EU or Japan decided that they weren't going to import US meat that resulted from cloning, the entire meat industry in the United States would be significantly compromised. There is no analytical test to determine if an animal has been cloned, and so there is no way for a country that bans cloned foodstuffs to selectively block its entry. US farmers, then, would have to either slaughter entire herds or face closed markets abroad. You'd think that US farmers would want to raise their livestock in a way that would allow it compete or even oust its competitors. Cloning livestock for food does the opposite.

Third, competition in the dairy industry is fierce. The twenty large price tag for cloning an animal is a hugely expensive proposition for many dairy operations. If a farmer can't pony up the money, they'll be at a competitive disadvantage. If they can pony up the money, they lose a great deal of capital which could threaten the financial solvency of the business. The net effect is to encourage the trend toward large scale confinement operations, and discourage traditional family-run dairy operations.

Fourth, ground meat is often a mixture of the meat of hundreds of animals. One cloned cow in a herd results in a whole batch of potentially "bad for you" meat.

Fifth, and I believe this point to be especially important, is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because studies have failed to demonstrate any negative health impacts due to the consumption of cloned meat doesn't mean that it's safe to eat. Many of these studies have not been conducted for extended periods of time. While there's no bio-logical reason to suppose that cloned meat is in any way different from eating traditional meat, the long-term effects are not known.

As a result of any one of these factors, including food safety, the FDA should opt against the sale of cloned animals for food. Failing that, the government ought at the very least to require food from cloned animals to be labeled as such. Consumers should have the ability to make a reasonable choice as to what they eat and what they don't.

1 comment:

xenobiologista said...

Actually, the other thing besides dairy is meat. I don't remember the source, but it was only a few days ago that I read this - the benefit of cloning beef cattle is that you don't know the quality of meat until the animal is dead. Apparently genomic DNA's still intact up to a few hours after slaughter.