Sunday, March 04, 2007

Much Ado About Cloning

I really don't get what all the fuss is about over cloning cows in the food supply. In December, the FDA made headlines when a team of scientists delivered a 678-page report concluding that the meat and milk from cloned cows was indistinguishable from that of non-cloned cows, and the FDA issued an official preliminary finding that meat and milk from cloned animals was "safe". What surprises me is that anyone was surprised by this. Cloning is just a technique for creating something that sometimes occurs naturally: twins. Can you imagine anyone going around saying "I'd be afraid to eat the meat of a cow that was a twin. The FDA should force farmers to label such things. I want required labels that say 'This meat comes from a steer that had an identical sibling.'" Anyone who espoused such views would be considered a bit nutty, and rightly so. And cloning is different how, exactly?

Almost as long as humans have been farming, they have been seeking techniques for manipulating their stock to select for superior qualities. Selective breeding, artificial insemination, and various other assisted reproduction technologies have been employed for ages with nobody caring nor needing to care. And even cloning has been used for ages on plant stock. When it comes to our fruits and vegetables, people have long been eating clones. Surprise! Nobody noticed (except perhaps to notice the increased availability of superior produce).

I understand that some people may be ethically squeamish about animal cloning, but that shouldn't cloud objective judgment over whether such food is safe. And even ethically, the only rational argument I've heard against animal cloning is the "slippery slope" concern that it's a step too close to human cloning. In response to that, I would note that we seem to manage fairly well keeping a bright line between animal husbandry and human ethics, otherwise cannibalism and eugenics would be equally viable worries. The reproductive technologies routinely employed in agriculture would surely boggle the mind if one were to take on the misguided exercise of trying to analogize them to human practices and human ethics.

Thus I was bemused to read in today's LA Times of the spectacle of some of LA's top culinary stars gathered around a table for a double-blind taste test of cloned vs non-cloned beef, and of these otherwise very sophisticated people expressing "ick" reactions to the notion of cloned beef that one would normally expect from some country rube confronting escargot for the first time. Kudos to chef Mark Peel of Campanile for hosting the event, and to those who joined (even if with reservations). Some notable foodies refused to even have anything to do with it (the Times article names some names). In the end, none of the gastronomical luminaries were able to distinguish the cloned from the non-cloned beef. Quelle surprise.

I can understand epicures concerning themselves with distinctions between cattle raised on corn versus those raised on pasture, or cattle treated with growth hormones versus those not. Those are certainly distinctions that may have an actual effect on the resulting meat (or milk). But whether an animal is cloned or not, there's simply no basis for expecting any difference. And as the old saying goes, a difference that makes no difference is no difference.

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