January 16, 2008

Cow Cow Cow Cow: FDA Approves Cloning Livestock and the Fear Begins

The FDA yesterday issued its conclusion as to whether to permit the cloning of livestock whose offspring will enter the US food supply. It has found that products obtained from cows, pigs and goats whose parents were produced in this manner are identical to those from animals reproduced by means already in use. The release announcing the decision is available on the Food and Drug Administration's website.

The decision comes in the wake of a long and heated debate that has taken place over the last couple of years. There seem to be three major arguments being raised by those who oppose cloning. All three of these are based on insufficient premises. For ease of analysis, I'll note these objections as religion, pseudoscience and ecology, respectively. This is admittedly a somewhat artificial division used for convenience; many of those who object in fact blend them into a single objection or else use all three.

The Religious Objection
This objection is typified by a comment on story in Business Week on the matter:

Cloning is upsetting the balance of nature.....although cloned meat may be scientifically proven to be safe to be consumed, it is still against the law of nature.

— lionelx

Even more explicit is this comment on the same story:
Here we go against the taboos of Islam just when Mr. Bush has just collected a big cheque from the Muslim countries today, 15th January, 2008...

— Firozali A Mulla

Mulla's comment references a particular religion and lionelx's is a more general "law of nature" argument, but they're essentially the same. Both of these objections are based on the belief that there exists some supernatural set of rules that governs what we can and can't eat. This fails immediately on the fact that if such a set of laws existed, it shouldn't be possible to clone the animals in the first place. The first comment is particularly clear on the religious point of view; given that the products are perfectly safe, the very act of cloning livestock "is upsetting the balance of nature." Apparently, the domestication of animals by untold generation of selective husbandry doesn't do this. What the distinction is in reference to the "balance of nature" isn't made clear, but the fact is that raising an artificially maintained large population of one kind of animal in an area that couldn't support that population without significant human intervention is already an exceptionally unnatural situation. Why the method by which those animals reproduce should have more of an impact than the situation already has upon the natural world eludes me. Perhaps someone could explain why cloning has such a profound impact upon the "balance of nature." Breeding stock is already selected on the basis of desirable traits. Cloning speeds up the process that has been in place for thousands of years.

As far as I can tell, this objection is one made from personal belief alone. It's an insufficient reason not to allow the cloning of livestock.

The Pseudoscience Objection
A comment to the above story typifies this argument well:
Given what we know and don't know about biological proteins and how "prions" can adversely influence the reproduction of cells, who is to say our future generations won't be altered for the worse, and that the changes are so subtle and gradual that they won't manifest themselves until 2 or 3 generations later!? I am really scared. Then it may be too late and we may have altered the human race forever. Think of the Chernobyl area.

— Joey

I saw another comment on a separate story say essentially the same thing about fatty acids that Joey says about prions here but can't track it down right now.

Let's assume for the moment, based on Joey's argument, that the reason that we find prion diseases in cattle (e.g., mad cow disease) has a genetic basis. That's somewhat up in the air at the moment, by the way. There appear to be several families of prion diseases in the world and nobody knows how they're transmitted aside from the consumption of contaminated tissues. The most recent outbreak of mad cow disease in the UK, for example, appears to have been initiated when a new processing technique was used to render nervous tissues from sheep into protein meal that used a lower temperature than the previous technique and the prion proteins weren't denatured; what was mad cow disease in British cattle probably started as scrapie in sheep. This interesting bit of trivia aside, there's absolutely no reason to think that cloned animals are more likely to harbor prions than are those raised by current methods. Prions are themselves nothing more than proteins with an abnormal conformation. The twisting of the polypeptide can be the result of a genetic abnormality, but in most cases it takes place when a normal protein comes into contact with a prion. The mechanism by which this happens is not yet understood, but to make the leap to the idea that it becomes more likely because an animal has been cloned is one that isn't supported by anything we know. I find it very unlikely, in any case, that an animal from a lineage that includes a disproportionate number of individuals that have been affected by a prion disease would be chosen for cloning in the first place. The point of this technology, after all, is to speed up the propagation of desirable traits. Vulnerability to any disease will be selected against — exactly as it is in traditional husbandry.

In fact, there's no reason to think that cloned cattle, pigs or goats are substantially different from those who arrive on the farm by way of normal breeding. These animals are not being genetically modified, they're being duplicated. As the FDA release itself states:
Cloning is not the same as genetic engineering, which involves altering, adding or deleting DNA; cloning does not change the gene sequence.
Cloning and genetic modification are two entirely different issues, although those who aren't familiar with the basis of either one are likely to conflate them.

But there's one more fact that this argument ignores, and it's one that's stated in the release:
Because clones would be used for breeding, they would not be expected to enter the food supply in any significant number. Instead, their sexually reproduced offspring would be used for producing meat and milk for the marketplace.
It's not the clones themselves whose products would go on the market, but the offspring of those clones. If there are abnormalities in these offspring, it won't take long to see them and the offspring themselves are unlikely to have the one difference that we do see in clones — telomere shortening. Shortened telomere's, however, are themselves linked perhaps to early cell senescence and so, potentially, to a shorter lifespan for cloned animals. There is no reason to think that even consuming meat from an animal with shorter-than-normal telomeres poses any health risk to the consumer, and in any case that's only a problem for the cloned animal. Its offspring will have telomeres of normal length.

The objection from pseudoscience, then, is based on a combination of emotional appeal and a misunderstanding of the real situation. Animals other than livestock have been cloned for other purposes for quite some time now, and they're used for scientific investigation precisely because they're identical to their immediate ancestor and so a good way of maintaining pure strains. Thus, this argument is also insufficient.

The Ecological Objection
Of the arguments examined here, this is probably the most sensible, although that doesn't make it correct. The objection is typified by this comment:
I can only see one possible disadvantage, if a certain (profitable) breed of cow becomes the cattle of choice, widespread cloning will eliminate all diversity in the species, making the species as a whole venerable [=vulnerable] for epidemics. Which is already the case, in lesser extent, due to the extensive use of selective breeding.

— Anonymous

The author of this comment raises a good point and the comment itself almost makes the case for its insufficiency. That is, many of our crops are already effectively monocultures that lack genetic diversity. That provides the potential for a very bad situation, indeed, in cases where the environment changes due to climate flux or disease. Still, that amounts to an indictment of agricultural practice as it stands, not a reason to disallow livestock cloning. In fact, if the new technology ultimately makes it cheaper to produce animals with a very limited and regularly reproducible set of traits that are of immediate economic benefit, it will remove some of the pressure that currently works against greater heritable diversity. If ConAgra can someday halve the cost of immediately useful traits, a wise management program can use some of the surplus funds to set aside strains that have greater variety than what exists now. Whether or not big agricultural entities will do that, rather than simply taking more profits, remains to be seen. The point here is that cloning itself could increase the likelihood of it happening and doesn't necessarily make it less likely.

The objection from ecology is a sensible one as applied to agricultural practices overall, but is insufficient when applied to cloning livestock. It may be a good argument, however, for future regulation of genetic diversity. Perhaps we may someday see a government that gets this point and passes some sort of legislation that either requires or provides an additional benefit to those producers who take steps to maintain greater diversity in our food supply based upon the benefit derived from livestock cloning.

All in all, I don't see any compelling reason for consumers to be alarmed by the FDA's decision. The potential benefits far outweigh the risks, and there is always risk involved with new technology. That's good reason to analyze it carefully, but it's not justification for panic.

Just for the heck of it, I want to include one "blended" objection that shows how emotionally based these fears are when taken together — a worst-case scenario, if you will:
We need to stop playing God. People do not have the right to create. The FDA says this is a safe practice but the FDA also allows percentages of human tissue into meat products and rat pellets into popcorn. WAKE UP they are not looking out for your best interest. THis is just another way to skim off the top. And move further away from natural products which our bodies crave. The cows we are eating today are so pumped full of steroids, chemicals and genetic enhancments that their clones won't be natural animals. Down with Corporate farming, bring back the family farmer, the backbone of This country!!!

— Dale

That's what you get when you run all three objections into a single set of statements. It's all right there, complete with conspiratorial overtones and outright paranoia. Pure emotion and little knowledge; it's a volatile mix when applied to any question.

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