Send in the Clones

by F.

It’s going to be funny to watch this story play out. I’ll leave my cynical predictions to the end and begin with the facts. As the New York Times put it,

After years of delay, the Food and Drug Administration tentatively concluded yesterday that milk and meat from some cloned farm animals are safe to eat. That finding could make the United States the first country to allow products from cloned livestock to be sold in grocery stores….

The F.D.A.’s finding comes more than six years after the agency first decided to study the matter, after recognizing that the advent of cloned farm animals raised a food safety issue. After that study, the agency in 2003 gave a tentative approval to cloned animals for food. But the F.D.A. retreated after its own advisory panel found there was insufficient scientific backing for that conclusion….

[T]he agency also found that cloning “poses no unique risks to the health of animals” beyond those seen with other forms of assisted reproduction such as in-vitro fertilization. The frequency of problems is higher with cloning, however, perhaps because it is a newer technology. The first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, was born in 1996….

While animal cloning has always been legal, since 2001 there has been a voluntary moratorium on the sales of milk or meat from such animals to give the F.D.A. time to study the matter. Some experts say that some products from clones or their offspring have probably nonetheless made their way into the food supply.

So the FDA approved selling cloned meat and dairy products. The public, of course, is scared of clones:

A poll this month from the nonprofit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that while most consumers knew little about animal cloning, 64 percent said they were uncomfortable with it, with 46 percent saying they were “strongly uncomfortable.”

That’s pretty funny: “I know little about animal cloning—but I don’t like it one bit!” On the other hand, perhaps it’s good that folks are skeptical. But what’s really bad is that mothers don’t like it. They buy the food:

14 percent of women would turn away from all dairy products if milk from clones were introduced into the food supply. The association surveyed women because its research has found them to be the main household decision makers on dairy products.

And “consumer representatives” are outraged, too:

consumer representatives argue that the science backing the F.D.A.’s decision is shaky and that consumer surveys show that most people are opposed to cloning animals, let alone eating them. Some also said that cloning causes harm to the animals involved and could pave the way for human cloning.

The Mother Jones blog, predictably, offers knee-jerk reaction:

The agency isn’t even suggesting any special labeling for the products. I find that frightening. And roughly 65 percent of consumers agree, indicating in a recent poll that they are uncomfortable with the idea of cloned food.

Those 65%, of course, don’t know what a gene even is, but no matter. The BioLaw blog, in contrast, says that

Most biologists will be unsurprised by [the FDA’] conclusions. Opponents of food derived from genetically modified organisms or clones will likely be disappointed at the absence of scientific data pointing to a Frankenfood smoking gun.

Over at the Dilbert Blog, Scott Adams describes the thinking of anti-cloners:

“I sure enjoy eating Bob the cow, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating Bob the other cow.”

OK. So. What are the arguments, pro and con? Even if you think the FDA is corrupt and has been captured by industry, which may be the case, I’m not going to worry too much about cloning because there is nothing intrinsically scary about it. Contrary to popular belief, cloning is widespread in nature. It often occurs as part of parthenogenesis, where animals alternate between sexual and asexual reproduction.

This is not to say that there won’t be a shitstorm over this. I think there may be—I would put the likelihood at around, oh, 0.4. This is similar to genetically modified foods. There was really no health threat from them, but the food companies lost the propaganda war. I don’t think they’ll make that mistake again. But who knows. The collective IQ of corporate America is roughly that of a (cloned) potato.

How will this play out? Possible effects I see:

  1. France and other EU countries will make a big deal about this, refuse to import cloned beef from the United States, and will ensure that French farmers eschew cloning. Why? Because, like many food regulations, this would be protectionism under another name, as with genetically modified foods, which posed no real health threat but did pose an economic one to pampered European farmers. “Sacre bleu! My subsidy is, how you say, GONE!”
  2. Church groups and other nutcases will lobby congress to prevent cloned meat in the United States, thinking that cloning is somehow morally wrong. Of course, as I mentioned, cloning is common in nature. For instance, potatoes and strawberries are clones. I don’t find strawberries morally odious. But then, I’m an atheist. Maybe we should ask Mel Gibson.
  3. The collectivists and anti-WTO types will say this is a slippery slope to cloning people. Gasp! As with most slippery slope arguments, many folks will consider a very improbable outcome to be almost certain to occur. But again, there are a lot of cloned potatoes out there and I haven’t seen many cloned people. Same with komodo dragons. They can reproduce asexually when there are no boy dragons around. Yet, again, I haven’t seen many human clones. Of course, maybe that’s what THEY want me to THINK! I better get my tinfoil hat out of the closet and buy a shack in the foothills of Montana. Just to be safe. Those fucking potatoes will kill you and everyone you care about.