Wednesday, January 23, 2008

FDA Decision A Bad Idea

You may have heard that the FDA has given a green light to the cloning of animals for human consumption. Like me, you may have cringed at the thought of eating animals that are essentially copies of each other. But what's the big deal, if there's nothing inherently wrong with the products of these animals? Verlyn Klinkenborg explains why we should be concerned:

I think the clearest way to understand the problem with cloning is to consider a broader question: Who benefits from it? Proponents will say that the consumer does, because we will get higher quality, more consistent foods from cloned animals. But the real beneficiaries are the nation’s large meatpacking companies — the kind that would like it best if chickens grew in the shape of nuggets. Anyone who really cares about food — its different tastes, textures and delights — is more interested in diversity than uniformity.

As it happens, the same is true for anyone who cares about farmers and their animals. An agricultural system that favors cloned animals has no room for farmers who farm in different ways. Cloning, you will hear advocates say, is just another way of making cows. But every other way — even using embryo transplants and artificial insemination — allows nature to shuffle the genetic deck. A clone does not.

To me, this striving for uniformity is the driving and destructive force of modern agriculture. You begin with a wide array of breeds, a truly diverse pool of genes. As time passes, you impose stricter and stricter economic constraints upon those breeds and on the men and women who raise them. One by one, the breeds that don’t meet the prevailing economic model are weeded out. By the beginning of the 21st century, you’ve moved from the broad base of a genetic pyramid to its nearly vanishing peak, which is to say that the genetic diversity present in the economically acceptable breeds of modern livestock is minute. Then comes cloning, and we leave behind all variation.

Cloning is not unnatural. It is natural for humans to experiment, to try anything and everything. Nor is cloning that different from anything else we’ve seen in modern agriculture. It is another way of shifting genetic ownership from farmers to corporations. It is another way of creating still greater economic and genetic concentration in an industry that has already pushed concentration past the limits of ethical and environmental acceptability.

It always bears repeating that humans are only as rich as the diversity that surrounds them, whether we mean cultural or economic diversity. The same is true of genetic diversity, which is an essential bulwark against disease.

So, although there may nothing different about the meat that comes from a cloned animal as opposed to a "naturally" born one, the cloning of animals for human consumption will only further weaken the health of our food supply. Already, factory farms pump animals full of hormones and anti-biotics because of the conditions in which these animals are raised, and the extent to which they desire these animals to grow is extremely unhealthy for the animals and produces animals that are more prone to disease. As Klinkenborg states, cloning will reduce genetic diversity, by gradually reducing the number of genetic lines that are used to breed offspring. Reduced genetic diversity increases the risk of disease (as this example illustrates) as diseases adapt to a particular lineage, and reduces the ability of a species to adapt to unknown diseases that may fell most individuals of a species, except for those that are disease resistent as a result of genetic variation. For example, imagine that a majority of America's chicken products come from a single line of chickens bred for their ability to bulk up or lay bigger eggs. Then imagine that small change in the DNA of avian flu allows the disease to exploit a vulnerability in that specific lineage. Where before you might have had only a substantial number of poultry dying from a disease, now you face the possibility of all of them dying, as the genetic diversity that provides hope that some members will be able to resist a particular disease is missing.

And Klinkenborg alludes to the fact that farming corporations will not stop at merely cloning animals. They will want to genetically modify them as well, as we already do with plants, in an effort to get at the same results that breeding does, only faster. They will manipulate them in a manner that produces the most productive and efficient animal, even if that animal looks like a freak to our eyes. Should our aesthetic sensibilities be the only thing that stands in the way of such animals, modified and cloned to serve as food? No, not when such manipulation may result in whole lines of animals that are dangerously vulnerable to diseases that will kill them, or us.

Lastly, cloning animals for food betrays a wanton disrespect for those animals and for nature. Yes, I know that a cloned animal could be raised on a free-range farm just as easily as a naturally borne one. That's not what's going to happen, because cloning is indicative of an attitude that values the animals only for what they provide to us, an attitude in which any treatment of an animal is permissible so long as it results in better tastes or cost savings.

So don't buy into any hysteria about cloned animals being "monsters" and unfit for consumption. It's not true. But there are very real and serious problems with cloning animals that we ought to be concerned about, and maybe it would be wise to take a pass on eating them after all if that's what it takes to get the big farm corporations' attentions.

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