Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Attack Of The Cloned

I mentioned in my piece of January 4 that biotechnology would be among the top ten stories of 2008. Here it comes:
Cloned cows, pigs and goats and their offspring are safe to enter the U.S. food supply, regulators found amid criticism from lawmakers, consumer groups and worried eaters.

The Food and Drug Administration posted a summary of a final report backing the use of cloned food on its Web site today after a seven-year review. The agency hasn't recommended any special labeling for such products.
On its face, food from cloned animals doesn't sound like such a big deal. If anything, it's not likely to have much impact on the food supply, since it still takes the same amount of time from "conception" to maturity sufficient to provide a food source (or milk source). This isn't going to provide a sudden bounty of food, and in fact may actually shrink the food supply since, you know, Mother Nature has a pretty efficient system for reproduction already in place, something it will take man millennia to replicate in terms of efficiencies.

What cloning WILL do is change the quality of the food supply, and this is where concerns need to be addressed more carefully, in my opinion.

First thing: I dislike the fact that the FDA will allow cloned meats and milks onto the market without some distinction being made, to allow consumers a choice. If the argument is that labelling cloned meat as cloned will somehow hurt their sales, well then maybe that's a clue that more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of the product!

Next, I'm not against cloning, even human cloning. We've been cross-breeding animals for millennia now, in order to improve the breeding stock, make better meat and milk, and to help prevent diseases. I don't see that big a difference, except...

We can be fairly sure that the intent of cloning will have commercial interests ahead of the interests of health, safety, and diversity. And that spells major trouble: cloned animals will likely come from the most convenient sources, namely the animals at hand.

Any high school kid who's taken genetics can tell you that's called "inbreeding" and leads to all sorts of nasty things, like hemophilia. Life is like that, and humans who battle life by doing things on the cheap will pay dearly.

Even putting as many genetic safeguards in place as possible is no guarantee that this will be prevented: someone somewhere is going to screw up. Take a look at how much toxic crap is dumped in our environment now by big businesses, who can actually afford to dispose of it safely! Why would the FDA think things will be any different with cloning?

Let's take a current example from the food processing industry as an example: growth hormones.

First off, Congress, if growth hormones are bad for ballplayers, why are they OK for cows, chickens and pigs? After all, I don't eat Barry Bonds...stuff like this has a half life. It's not necessarily metabolized completely in the animal itself.

Second, for years, hormones like rBGH have been pumped into milk-producing cows to raise their estrogen levels, thus producing more milk. Well, guess what? That wasn't particularly safe!

And a whole new industry cropped up that claims their milk is "rBGH free". I can imagine that within ten years, a whole new market will have cropped up about "born natural" animals.

See, here's the thing: I'm not against cloning. I'm not even against cloning for meat or milk. What I am against is ignorance and deliberate deceptions, which is what the FDA seems to be mapping out here: first, introduce a potentially dangerous and deadly process and product to the market, let it run its retail course and then assess the results, like LSD given to hundreds of government employees, because you don't want to scare people off before the results are in.

You guys are supposed to be protecting us.

As they said in Jurassic Park:
Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever witnessed, yet you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun.
Bang! You're dead!


UPDATE: Welcome, Slate.com readers. Feel free to peruse the blog as you finish reading this article. The smoking section's over there (sorry, but I have hyperactive respiratory disorder...), and the bar's open.

(h/t MissCellania for noticing this)