Cloned meat – it’s deja vu all over again

Early last week, Man of La Muncha asked me a question that caught me off guard; would I be willing to consume meat or dairy products from a cloned animal?

I was surprised by my immediate, instinctive revulsion to the idea of consuming anything cloned. But then I considered the question; why, indeed, would consuming the products of a cloned animal be any different from consuming the products of the original animal? The point of cloning, after all, is that there is no difference between Animal A and Animal B — if you eat Animal A without problems, then Animal B, which is exactly the same, should also pose no difficulties. Part of my immediate reaction had to do with fear — fear of the unknown, fear of science run amok.

So what's wrong with cloned animals being used to produce meat and dairy products, especially if the animals in question are raised, milked, and slaughtered in a humane fashion? As I considered the question more closely, I realized that there were some very good reasons not to support the cloning of animals for human consumption.

Industrial agriculture drives towards monoculture. The result of industrial agriculture, whether it be a tomato, a steak, or a gallon of milk, is a product that is predictable in its sameness. The move toward cloning, then, is not surprising, as it represents the epitome of monoculture.

The problem is that monocultures are dangerous. Whenever genetic diversity is reduced in a particular species, it greatly increases the chances that a random bacteria or virus will do serious damage to the species in question. Industrial agriculture knows this — it's one of the reasons why pigs and chickens, in particular, are kept indoors in what amounts to quarantine. Any contact with the outside world could spell disaster for the farmer in question.

Now, take limited genetic diversity and change it to no genetic diversity. Each and every animal exactly the same. Each cow providing the same amount of milk, each steer providing steaks of uniform size and marbling, each pig providing pork chops with just the right amount of fat. If you're Cargill or ADM, this sounds perfect — taking the guesswork out of the inputs and outputs, standardizing the product.

However, what happens if one of these animals comes down with a virus? In a group of animals with normal genetic diversity, a certain percentage will get sick, and of that group, a certain percentage will die. The ones who were sick and then recovered will then have immunity to the virus. Those who never got sick at all will pass their immunity on to their offspring. And the group as a whole is healthier than before. But in a group with no genetic diversity, introduction of a virus from which they have no protection will spell calamity. There will be no group that sickens and then gets well, and no group that never gets the virus at all.

This will happen regardless of the conditions under which the animals are kept. Viruses mutate, and they mutate extremely well in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, which pretty much describes every CAFO in the country. No matter how well producers try to protect their animals from the next big virus, it will evolve. If it evolves in animals that are all genetically identical, the entire herd will die.

Industrial agriculture has already given us pigs that are virtually fat free, though as a result they are so nervous that farmers need to be careful not to make any sudden sounds so as not to scare them to death. They have given us chickens with breasts so large that the birds cannot stand. An argument can be made that the production of these animals, the products of careful genetic selection, have already greatly reduced the genetic diversity of the pig and chicken species as a whole.

We don't need to go whole hog and make carbon copies of what will certainly be viewed as science experiments gone wrong.

One Responseto “Cloned meat – it’s deja vu all over again”

  1. DairyQueen says:

    This is yet another example of why we need an active bioethics discussion in this country, made up of stakeholders from ALL groups, including consumers — not just scientists and the industry that funds them.

    I went looking for some academic papers that I remembered being referred to in an article about cellular weaknesses and telomere lengths in cloned animals, and I came across a much-cited opinion article in Nature's Biotechnology titled "The health profile of cloned animals."

    Since I'm not sure if you must have academic access to read the whole article (I do), I'm reproducing the last two paragraphs, which follow some thorough-seeming reviews of the available scientific literature:

    Clearly, the idea that most cloned animals develop abnormally is currently unjustified on scientific grounds and should not be used by policymakers or other groups as an argument to ban all human cloning research...
    In addition to its potential for shedding light on some of the greatest mysteries of human development and disease, somatic cell cloning methods could be used to preserve genetics for agricultural and conservation purposes, including species and populations at risk of extinction.

    The authors of this much-cited piece? Three of them work for Advanced Cell Technology — the very company behind most of the animal cloning activity in this country. (See this 2001 CNN article for how ACT was actually formed by a poultry genetics company.)

    I have to ask: is ANYONE actually looking out for the health of Americans? Or are we engaged in a massive clinical trial for which none of us has signed consent forms?

    Look, I'm getting all shouty, and I haven't even finished my coffee yet. Thanks, Bitch!