Apr 7, 2007
Cloned Food Products? We Just Call Them Apples

As the new year began, FDA proclaimed that products such as meat and milk from cloned animals are safe for human consumption.

A person with a science-based education might wonder why anyone would think such products were not safe and why FDA might have to rule upon the matter.

But people at the Center for Food Safety emerged as spokespersons for those not convinced, and they cited poll data indicating two-thirds of American consumers would refuse to eat such products if they knew they were from clones.

There are reasons to be concerned about cloning, just as there are reasons to be concerned about other kinds of genetic engineering, but food safety is not one of them.

Nor, it seems clear, are people very aware of what cloning is. Cloning is the production of an offspring that is the genetic twin of one of its parents. An ordinary cell of a parent is jolted into acting like a reproductive cell without cell division or fertilization.

In the animal world, natural cloning sometimes takes place among some species of reptiles, which can reproduce without sex in a process called parthenogenesis. In the world of plants, where fruit and vegetable growers are, cloning is not terribly controversial. All apple varieties, all grapes, potatoes, strawberries and some other plants are produced by asexual propagation of clones.

Rather than safety, points of discussion about cloning should center on the benefits, the practicality and the potential consequences.

The benefit of cloning anything, plant or animal, is that it freezes in place genetic progress made through conventional breeding. Whether it’s apples or pigs, once a desirable individual has been obtained by breeding and crossbreeding, it is unfortunate to lose that particular bundle of traits by scrambling it up in the next generation. In apples and potatoes, we have not had to lose the bundle once assembled, but in people and animals, we do.

Cloning animals could change that. The benefits are obvious – we perpetuate the most flavorful pork, the highest milk-producing cows with the best feet and legs, the chickens that lay the most eggs containing the least cholesterol.

Cloning, combined with genetic engineering, could not only keep the best-flavored apples, like Honeycrisp, but cure its many ailments as well. How many apple breeders would love to clone an apple variety and pile in insect and disease resistance in addition?

In plants, cloning has been pretty easy – grafting in grapes and apples, planting potato tubers, snipping the runners from strawberries or cuttings from flowers. In animals, it is not as easy and requires laboratory assistance. That isn’t a large barrier. The dairy people are already more than halfway there, having adopted artificial insemination more than half a century ago. After tossing out 99 percent of the potential dads and letting one bull sire thousands of offspring, they’re ready to start doing the same with moms. So, cloning animals is not as impractical as it might at first seem.

Potential consequences are important.

In plants, we know that continued reproduction through cloning can lead to an increasing level of virus and disease in each generation. Periodically, we have to clean them up. Might that happen in animals?

The Center for Food Safety argued that clones might be inferior animals – requiring more antibiotics, for example. But that concern seems to question whether clones would, in fact, be real clones or some kind of doppelgangers.

A most important consequence is the reduction in genetic diversity. This is true whether cloning involves plants or animals. Genes that are being selected for increase much more rapidly in a clone environment than they do in the usual breeding environment, but genetic diversity is reduced whenever there is selection.

An even more important consequence has nothing to do with safety or practicality. It concerns what people will do once they can do.

Many of us are concerned that it seems cruel to keep chickens in cages where they eat and lay eggs – and that’s their life. The argument for putting chickens – or brood sows – in pens rather than crates is that it is more humane. But we also know that, in the end, it’s still about bacon and chicken soup.

What about pain? Is that what we want: to reduce pain? Would it be less cruel to find chickens with even less brainpower, so they liked living in cages? Would it be good to clone blind chickens that lay eggs in the dark and don’t notice? How about making an easily hypnotized hog that would die on command without stunners and squeals and knives?

No, the cloning issue isn’t about food safety. It is the fear that people, given the awesome power to do what they choose, will choose badly. And they won’t do it all at once, but one step at a time – sliding down the slippery slope toward eugenics for people.

It has often seemed to me that the “purpose” of all species of life – humans included – is to change stuff that is not-us into us by eating them or eliminating them as unwanted competition. We safely eat most everything. Will humans win when nothing else is left except servile creatures?

Cloning isn’t the first step. We’ve taken plenty of steps already in shaping this world. It is another step. And it’s a reminder we can lose by winning.

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