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Is cloning the wave of the future? March 9, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in consumer, environment, food, life, nature, science.
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Clone cartoon - Sydney Morning Herald

Cloned food: according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it’s officially “safe to eat”… but does anybody want to eat it?

I’ve been following some of the discussion around the ethics of cloning — and wondered whether manipulation of animals at the cellular level is just another step down the road from other “unnatural” methods like artificial insemination — when I realized all the hypothetical “ifs”, “ands” or “buts” were about to be put to the test. All that fuss around Dolly the sheep and other cloned animals should have led me to the obvious question: what are the cloned animals to be used for?

Food is only part of the answer. No matter which way you slice the cell, cloning can cost up to 10 times more money than just breeding an animal for food. And a cloned animal doesn’t just spring fully-formed from the test tube — it uses the same resources, food, drugs, vet bills, etc as the other animals. So I would have thought it was an interesting experiment, in the same vein as climbing Mt. Everest (because it was there), but that it wouldn’t affect the rest of us non-scientific plebes.

According to a Newsweek article, the main purpose of cloning is to produce prize livestock to be used for breeding:

An elite cow—one whose genes are optimized for producing the healthiest, longest-living and most productive offspring—can fetch more than $100,000. With such a price tag, elite cows aren’t allowed to bear calves at the natural rate of one per year. Farmers insist on a blistering 10 to 20 births a year. To keep up this pace, veterinarians employ an array of reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. Cloning is the latest, and perhaps the most powerful, reproductive tool in the vet’s black bag.

So, while it’s not likely that these elite animals will find their way into the food chain, their offspring might. And its the offspring which could turn out to be the fly in the ointment. Critics are worried that too few studies have looked at successive generations of animals from cloned parents, and that no one knows exactly how DNA and molecular biology will change as a result of the cloning process. Could the unknown changes be harmful to the animal, and to human consumption? Add to that the low percentage of successful clones; a French study found that, out of 100 embryo transfers, fewer than five of the fetuses were born alive. And that could raise a whole lot of ethical questions.

In Great Britain, meanwhile, cloned animals are seen as a possible solution to predicted food shortages. A Guardian article points out that a cloned top-producing animal saves generations of cross-breeding, and provides an environmentally friendly alternative to other methods of increasing meat and dairy production, such as the use of chemical fertilizers to provide more fodder. The article quotes Tim Lang, of the sustainable development commission, who says consumers need to change their attitudes and their spending habits:

The problem is that consumers expect cheap and plentiful meat, fruit, vegetables and groceries, yet their production causes harmful greenhouse gases and is unsustainable because of the UK’s limited availability of land, oil and water.

When I think about the prospect of eating cloned meat, the picture that springs to mind is the food replicator onboard the Starship Enterprise. Since food is, as far as I know, a bunch of chemicals, proteins and other atoms anyway, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine a futuristic computer putting together food on the molecular level and reconstituting it to tempt our human taste buds. (OK, maybe I’ve read too much science fiction…) So is cloning that much different?

Anyway, science fiction aside, I’m not convinced about the benefits of cloned food. First of all, there’s the “yuck factor”. And I’d rather support local farmers and buy organic foods which are better for the environment. Still, although the U.S. has asked farmers to hold off on putting cloned meat into the human food chain — for now — in a few years we may see meat from the offspring of cloned animals in the supermarket. Clone appetit!

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Related Links:
Guardian UK: “The clones are coming — to a supermarket near you”
European Food Safety Authority draft statement on cloned food
Newsweek: “Is Cloned Meat Safe to Eat?”
“Clone, clone on the range”

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Comments»

1. lavenderbay - March 11, 2008

I’m not sure how long any “yuck factor” would really last. The power of sex has always been smothered in taboos and amulets: chaperones, wedding rings, the worship of “nice girls” who have managed to have famous babies while foregoing the usual routine of coitus (Jesus’ mom) or passage through the birth canal (the Buddha’s mom). For many people, then, cloning might be a relief, bringing their meat-providing animals one step closer to vegetablehood. Kind of like using the clean, guilt-reducing pistol as opposed to the more intimate dagger. On that note… I guess I’m not pro-cloning, either.

2. eyegillian - March 11, 2008

“…bringing their meat-providing animals one step closer to vegetablehood.”

Well… it’s true that, as a consumer, I’m more comfortable with grocery store packages of plastic-wrapped faceless meat. And if you buy meat the same way you buy vegetables, then why not treat the animals the same way as the vegetables — why not clone ’em all! — like the joke about the farmer who plants the cows about a foot apart and five inches down…

I guess its no wonder that this issue raises peoples’ hackles, when it’s essentially about sex and reproduction…

3. Katie - February 24, 2009

I think cloning is not right because thier isgoing to be twice as much people and will get confussed.


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