EU Bungles Effort to Regulate Cloning for Food

The European Union missed its big chance last week to regulate the use of cloning for food.

Cloning is a complicated issue, and I’m no expert.  I don’t know how cloning happens, I don’t grasp the full range of ethical issues, and I don’t even grasp the full range of health issues implicated in eating food from clones or their descendants.

But I know enough to merit talking about it here.

At issue in the EU is whether selling food products derived from clones–or their descendants–should be banned or labeled.  The issue is similar to the political battle being waged in the U.S. over whether to ban, or slap labels on, genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified organisms are banned in much of the EU, but allowed–and not labeled–in the U.S.  This has many angered, not only because the health risks of eating GM foods are unclear and largely untested, but because genetically modified crops also have a tendency to cross-pollinate natural crops, thereby jeopardizing biological diversity (on which advanced life on earth has depended for millions of years).

EU Flag

Europe's Twelve Identical Stars Take on a New Meaning.

Food products from clones has been more tightly regulated than GMOs from the start.  Clone food is currently banned in the U.S. but allowed in Europe upon prior approval.

But food products from clones’ descendants are a different story.  Selling meat, milk or cheese from clones’ offspring is currently permitted in both the U.S. and the E.U.  In the U.S., given the current regulatory environment, this is unlikely to change.  But political skepticism over using clones for food production is much higher in Europe.  They had a genuine chance to shift policy last week, but they blew it.

So, what’s the trouble with clones anyway?

Food producers like them because they can choose which animals they clone.  Clone your best breeding bull and create another generation of prized cattle.  Bigger cattle for slaughter, higher producing milk cows.  Higher profits.

But it’s not always that simple.  For one, most clones die shortly after–or even before–birth.  This raises animal rights questions, as well as moral ones.  Do we feel right creating animals that die in the womb?  Is it right to create offspring after offspring that can’t survive its first months?

This problem may resolve itself over time.  I don’t know why so many clones die young, but if it’s a matter of improving the physical process of creating a clone, it may be a problem we eliminate in time.  If it goes deeper than flaws in the physical cloning practice, though, then you really have to wonder.  Proponents of cloning say a clone is identical to the original; this would hardly be the case if most clones are unviable for reasons other than the human errors in the laboratory cloning process.

Second, how do we know food from clones’ offspring is safe to eat?  Sure, as far as we know it’s identical, and there’s no scientific evidence to prove otherwise, or to prove any possible harm from consuming this food.  But we also had no reason to believe DDT, PCBs or thalidomide would cause harm, and scientists assured us they were safe.  I have little problem with experimenting to increase food production.  But I’m not sure we need to launch it into everyone’s bodies without at least giving them the choice of opting out.

63% of Europeans say they’d be unlikely to eat food that came from clones’ offspring.  And 84% think it should be labeled.  Why shouldn’t they have the right to have it labeled?

(3) Finally, many people simply think we shouldn’t mess with nature.  They think there’s something unnatural about cloning.  I can’t tell you what’s right morally.  And while there is something Brave New World or Hitler Youth about the idea, and there’s always the fear that what we start doing to animals we could start doing to humans, I’m skeptical that we’re about to start cloning ourselves to create a better human society.  And in general I’d rather we innovate where we can.

But that doesn’t mean cloning is right, and people who have a moral objection to it should at least be able to opt out.  And those of us who don’t think it’s worth paying 10 cents less for a cut of beef, and taking on the risk that there’s something dreadfully wrong with this meat, should be able to opt out.  And that requires labeling.

I’ve long taken comfort in the EU’s reluctance to feed all of their citizens genetically modified foods.  Everyone in America is eating them (unless you don’t eat processed foods, or eat exclusively organic food), and God forbid something’s wrong with them we’re all in trouble.  We simply may not know for a couple generations.  But it’s nice to know that somewhere on earth people aren’t taking that risk (however small it may be).  It would be nice to know Europeans were doing the same, with respect to cloning.  But it looks like we may be running another long-term experiment on the health concerns of a new technology.  And in this study, we’re all test subjects.

Do you think we should ban, or require labeling of, food from the offspring of clones?

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