The Fruit of Our Sirloins
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? People have puzzled over that question for at least 2,000 years. In the eternal cycle of natural reproduction, they saw no answer. But it turns out that the cycle is not eternal. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration tentatively approved the use of cloned animals to make food. Natural reproduction is giving way to artificial reproduction. And with the new era comes a new question: Which came first, the steer or the steak?
Case in point: Elvis. He's a 19-month-old Angus calf. You can view him on the Web site of ViaGen, a cloning company. In a recent slide presentation from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the caption below his photo reads, "Elvis was cloned from a side of Prime Yield Grade 1 beef."
No joke: The calf came from the beef. Elvis isn't a freak show -- he's a business plan. "Some of your animals have more income potential than others," ViaGen reminds farmers. "Our services help you identify, preserve and reproduce the genetics of those animals." If a steer is already dead, no problem. In fact, the best way to judge its steakworthiness is to cut it open and hang it on a hook. That's what happened to the original incarnation of Elvis. "Biopsy samples should be collected from your animal as soon as possible," ViaGen advises. If you like that side of beef and want another just like it, we can grow it for you.
A steer from a steak from a steer. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has reentered the building.
The political fight over animal cloning is just beginning. It's a lot like the fight over human cloning, except that the roles are reversed. Right-wing groups and Republican senators fanned fear and ignorance about human cloning; left-wing groups and Democratic senators are fanning fear and ignorance about animal cloning. Moderates on both sides get trampled. So do principles. The same liberals who demand stem cell research using human embryos and who blasted the FDA for delaying approval of emergency contraception now accuse the FDA of recklessly approving cloned food.
The left-wingers want the FDA, Congress and President Bush to keep clones off the market. Their case, laid out in a petition to the FDA, is a mess of anecdotes, obsolete data, speculation and ideology. Like right-wingers in the human cloning debate, they expect the government to honor even their "religious" objections. But their strongest argument is that cloned food is unsafe, because cloning, unlike fertilization, often fails to reprogram genes for normal embryonic development.
It's a sensible worry, but the facts don't bear it out. The FDA's review -- based on exhaustive and fully disclosed analysis of scientific journal articles, health records, blood samples and meat and milk composition -- found no "food consumption risks or subtle hazards in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats." The agency concluded that "food from the sexually reproduced offspring of clones is as safe as food that we eat every day."
Why don't reprogramming errors taint your food? Because if they're serious, they kill the animal before it's old enough to be milked or eaten, or they cause defects that make the animal flunk federal food safety inspections. They don't carry over to a clone's offspring, because fertilization, like rebooting, cleans up programming errors. And the offspring are where the milk and meat will come from. ViaGen charges $15,000 to clone a steer. You don't butcher a $15,000 clone. You use it for breeding.
Critics say that cloning often causes health problems for cloned animals and their surrogate mothers. That's true, but less so in some species, and the rate of complications is falling as the technology improves. Opponents of cloning also suggest that it should be banned because it's unethical "to alter the essential nature of animals." Essential nature? We've been breeding animals for 15,000 years. We've been artificially inseminating them for nearly 700 years. Most apples, bananas, grapes, peaches and potatoes are clones, and a lot of meat sold today was produced through in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer or embryo splitting.
The silliest rap on cloning is that it offers "no consumer benefits." That's insane. Cloning means total genome control. It bypasses the uncertainties of breeding. It also improves breeding, because clones of your best bull or cow produce more sperm or eggs. Theoretically, you can target any trait for cloning: more muscle, less fat, more omega-3 acids. You can even help the environment by cloning animals that eat grass instead of grain.
In principle -- with apologies to Bill Clinton -- there's nothing wrong with biotechnology that can't be cured by what's right with biotechnology. Yes, poorly cultivated clones may require antibiotics. But efficient cloning can reduce the use of antibiotics, not to mention growth hormones, by spreading healthier genes. Yes, factory farming can transmit mad cow disease. But guess what can block mad cow disease, according to a study released this week: A combination of genetic engineering and cloning.
Cloning can be humane, too. Farmers don't want their animals to get sick. Instead of calves that are born big, they'd rather have them born small -- so their mothers can deliver them easily -- and grow quickly thereafter. Dairy farmers prefer female calves to males, which get slaughtered for veal. Cloning could address all three issues.
Messing with nature at this level is never simple. It requires ongoing debate, monitoring and regulation. But we're not even getting that debate. Instead, opponents are relying, as they have in the human cloning debate, on the fact that cloning freaks people out. To reinforce this revulsion and intimidate regulators, politicians and food producers, they continually emphasize surveys showing that Americans are uncomfortable with cloned food, think it's unsafe and won't buy it. As though polls settled the matter. As though the FDA should put politics before science -- but only when it suits liberals.
Yes, we're scared of cloned food. But according to the same polls, most of us have heard little about animal biotechnology, don't know biotech food is already in supermarkets and, against all reason, are more afraid of cloning animals than of genetically engineering them.
Don't be cowed. Question your fears. That's the difference between us and the animals.
William Saletan covers science and technology for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.