Watching the Primaries
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Cloned Food

There've been a scattering of news stories since the FDA declared cloned food safe to eat.   It doesn't appear that the announcement has changed anybody's mind, but that's pretty typical of our non-scientific age.  If you were queasy about cloned food to begin with, you tend to be dismissive of the FDA (what do they know?); and if you were inclined to think that cloned food isn't a problem, you take the FDA announcement as proof of your position (so there!).  But was there anyone, anywhere, thinking, "Well, I'm not sure about the safety of cloned food.  I guess I'll wait to see what the scientists at the FDA say, and then I'll make up my mind."  We're in an age where we make up our minds first, based on vague feelings and the punditry of those we feel most closely aligned to, and then we interpret or dismiss the evidence to suit those beliefs. 

I wonder if the woman on the NPR story who expressed her discomfort with cloned food in typically vague and emotional terms eats mass-market chicken.  And if she does, whether she has any clue at all about how those chickens are grown.  Those birds certainly bear less resemblance to the chickens pecking around the feet of Auntie Em in Kansas than the cloned cattle will bear to the animals that they're cloned from.  That anyone would think that the non-cloned versions of mass-market meat proteins are any more natural than the cloned versions seems to stem from ignorance and a romantic nostalgia for what farming has not been in several decades.

I suppose that one could object to cloned food on the principle that cloning itself is a bad thing, although again, the root of this objection can't be scientific.  And that one would object in principle to cloning food animals, but not be concerned about what we do in slaughterhouses and chicken factories strikes me as another bit of cognitive disconnect.

I say this as a confirmed carnivore who rarely eats a vegetarian meal.  I may be uncomfortable with the ethical conundrums surrounding the way that we produce meat in the 21st century, but I still make the choice to eat it.  I do try to be aware of what really goes into the food that I eat so that at least I'm making informed choices.  Living in the modern world is an ethical minefield where one is never entirely sure whether or not bits and pieces of your value system haven't already been blown off, and you didn't realize it because you weren't paying the right kind of attention.

As Dylan says in Brownsville Girl, "People don't do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient, then they repent."



Another thing people tend to forget is that we have been eating cloned and genetically altered food for quite some time. Most our your corn, soybean, wheat crops come from seeds from large companies like Monsanto that genetically alter the seeds to make them resistant to drought, bugs, etc.
Every time you drive by a field and see those markers with numbers on it, that is the brand(?) of seed that farmer used for that particular crop.

You are right about the mass market chicken. They don't look like those pecking, squawking, feathered things on my grandmother's farm, just as the corn people eat today is a far cry from what the Indians ate. Perhaps eating cloned animals makes people more squeemish.


Disclosure: I have no qualms about eating genetically modified food, in principle. Modern techniques of cloning are only a modern variant of hybrid crops - mind you I do agree that there is a degree of magnitude here that goes beyond hybrids.

With that said, though I agree with your comments about emotional objections, I think your faith in science, or should I say clinical trials, is misplaced. I have been in medical publishing for 25 years. If there is one thing I have learned it is that the results of clinical trials can later be proven wrong once a product (be it a drug or genetically modified food) becomes available to the general population. The problem arises because cohorts of clinical trials are generally too small to detect relatively rare side-effects. These side-effects become readily apparent once the product is available to the general public. For example, if a drug causes an increase of MI in 0.1% of the population over a three year period this risk would not be detected in a trial with even 10,000 participants. However, once the drug (or product) was released to the general public it could result in 300,000 additional heart attacks in a population of 300,000,000.

But there is even a greater risk. No clinical trial, no matter how large, no matter how long-lived (with the possible exception of the Framingham Study) is designed to detect long-term impact. There is no evidence whatsoever that modern cloning techniques are safe for long-term ingestion. There have been no trials monitoring the impact of ingested cloned food over long periods of time (years even decades).

The best that can be said about genetically modified food is that there presently is no evidence to indicate that they are harmful. However, there is also no evidence that they are safe over the long-term. At this point in time, one can only eat genetically modified foods on an act of faith that they do not present a measurable increase in risk to long-term health.

T Scott

Mark -- I agree with that entirely, and I did not mean to suggest that because the FDA says it is safe, that this is actually so. For all of the reasons that you describe, it's important to maintain a healthy skepticism. But a healthy, informed skepticism about the reports of science is still a very different matter from ignoring science altogether. And the ethical issues remain problematic.


1. True: "We're in an age where we make up our minds first, based on vague feelings and the punditry of those we feel most closely aligned to, and then we interpret or dismiss the evidence to suit those beliefs."

But hasn't it ever been thus?

2. Your closing comments about ethical minefields really resonate with much so that I feel a blog post coming on.

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