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Cloned Beef

The controversy over the human consumption of meat and dairy products from cloned cows continues. The UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, after reviewing the evidence, concluded that there was no substantial difference between meat and dairy from cloned cows compared to conventional cows. However, food products from cloned animals and their offspring remain banned in Europe.

Use of offspring of cloned cows, sheep and pigs are legal in the US, South America, and Asia. Australia is likely to follow suit in a year or two. The European Union (EU) has an effective ban at the moment, but the policy is under review. The UK is also negotiating with the EU regarding the use of clones.

There is not much of a theoretical reason to suspect that cloned animals would present a health risk. The primary concern is that something unanticipated might have occurred during the cloning process, causing the animal to be genetically or developmentally abnormal. However, if the cloning process works properly this should not happen. Further, if mutations do occur, but the animal lives, it is likely that any changes do not represent a risk to humans who consume the meat or dairy from such clones.

It is even more unlikely that the offspring of a cloned animal would present a health risk – for then whatever mutation or abnormality resulted from a flawed cloning procedure would have to be passed on to offspring.

It is therefore no surprise that there is no evidence for any harm or risk from cloned animals or their offspring. In fact cloned animals appear to be identical to normally bred animals. We once again are faced with the situation of little theoretical risk, with no direct evidence of risk, but with a new technology and therefore unknowns. Where does the precautionary principle lie? It is always possible to demand greater testing and evidence of safety. It seems more prudent to deal with relative risks. In this case the relative risk appears to be quite small, and there are potential benefits to food production.

The EU is at the cautious end of the spectrum when it comes to new methods of food production. For example, they continue to be extremely negative with respect to genetically modified (GM) food. Since GM involves altering genes or introducing new genes, there is legitimate concern for safety and a greater burden of proof of safety. Cloned animals do not, or should not, have altered genetics.

The trend seems to be in favor of accepting cloned animals into the human food chain. This is reasonable given the lack of evidence for any risk and the low plausibility that there should be any.

Posted in: Nutrition

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68 thoughts on “Cloned Beef

  1. dlpfc says:

    From the article on safety: “Public acceptance of cloned animal products depends upon forthcoming US Food and Drug Administration approval along with convincing safety data.”

    Since when has data on safety, no matter how overwhelming, determined the public acceptance of a scientific breakthrough? This may sound cynical but I’m pretty sure public acceptance depends on how much the fundamentalists, both right-wing (“You’re playing God!”) and left-wing (“It’s un-natural!”) freak out about it, and to what extent the media decides that presenting their hysteria opposite the science represents “balance.”

  2. Badly Shaved Monkey says:

    I did seriously wonder exactly what hypothesis that Committee thought they were examining.

    I struggle to envisage a theoretical risk from eating the meat or milk from cloned animals. So, the exercise was pointless

    But, if someone more paranoid than me could come up with such an hypothesis, I cannot see what evidence could possibly exist that could satisfactorily give reassurance that the hypothesis was false. So, the exercise was a hollow sham.

  3. Joe says:

    Is there any indication of the practicality of dining on cloned animals today? I mean, breeding is so much cheaper than cloning, the meat must cost a helluva a lot of money. It seems to me the value in cloning animals would only be for speeding up the development of breeding stock of genetically modified animals.

  4. Badly Shaved Monkey says:

    dlpfc and I seem to have posted simultaneously. I think the answer to our implicit questions is that this was a cynical exercise to manage misplaced public anxiety rather than a genuinely scientific process.

  5. Beowulff says:

    The only downside I can see to using cloned animals (provided the cloning process is reliable) is the same disadvantage that monocultures have in plants: if a disease develops that some of the clones are susceptible to, all clones will be susceptible. There won’t be any naturally occurring variants that are immune to stop the disease from wiping out the entire stock (or harvest, with plants).

    Other than that, if the original animal was safe to eat, the clone should be safe to eat too. The argument that weird, unexpected mutations might be introduced with cloning doesn’t work either, because naturally bred animals may also get weird, unexpected mutations.

  6. Beowulff says:

    I’ll add that in fact, when it comes to unexpected mutations, clones may actually be safer. With clones, you always have the original DNA to compare to. So with cloned animals, you can theoretically always identify exactly what mutations occurred. That would be a lot harder for the naturally bred animals.

  7. mattlodder says:

    Don’t forget, Steve – there is a specifically British dimension to the politics (if not exactly the science) of this issue: BSE.

    The foolhardiness and arrogance of the farming industry which lead directly to BSE/CJD will not be easily forgotten in the UK, and it will inevitably loom large over any (political or media) discussions about tinkering with the food supply, particularly with cows. The resonances are too raw, too recent.

    It’s true that the plausibility of cloning causing problems is infinitesimally small, and the evidence base non-existent. But this stuff is an impossible sell to the British people given the recent history of Mad Cow Disease.

  8. rbm42 says:

    It’s pretty evident that most of the euro-resistance to GM foods and cloned animals (at least at the governmental level) is due to trade-protectionism, rather than any potential health issues. Popular hysteria and ignorance of the science is just a useful cover for this.

  9. My objections to cloning and genetic engineering of animals don’t have to do with milk safety, but with the aspect of treating animals like cogs in a machine and not living, sentient beings.

    If an animal is a cog, then it doesn’t need to be treated with respect and it’s ok to do whatever you need to it as long as it helps you make money.

    Inhumane treatment of animals in agriculture is already routine and is protected by law. But I’m perfectly fine with rebelling against each incremental institutionalization of disrespect.

    Who claims now that milk from cloned cows is unsafe to drink? On what basis do they make this claim?

  10. Beowulff says:

    @Alison Cummins: why would cloning animals lead to less respect for these animals? You don’t have less respect for naturally occurring clones (also known as identical twins) either, do you?

  11. Angora Rabbit says:

    The irony of their decision is that the major agriculture animals are essentially clones anyway. Most commercial chicken flocks were closed 40-50 yrs ago plus, and thus are so highly inbred that we actually worry about genetic diversity. PubMed on avian genetics to see the recent PNAS papers on the subject. The inbreeding has put one chicken genetics company out of business when they didn’t pay enough attention to the problem. Similarly, bulls are too dangerous to keep on the farm, and subsequently most dairy cattle (do not know if this is also true for beef) are produced by artificial insemination by a limited set of commercial bulls. IMO transgenics vs. inbreeding is a distinction without a difference.

    One could argue that cloning is actually safer because the genes that are manipulated are precisely controlled. You know exactly what you will get. With standard breeding, its a random dice roll and you can’t predict what genes will pop and up and be selected for.

    Another irony is that Europeans have long accepted irradiation to safely sterilize food, whereas the US public still freaks over the idea. I am endlessly puzzled over what sets off a public reaction.

  12. Watcher says:

    If an animal is a cog, then it doesn’t need to be treated with respect and it’s ok to do whatever you need to it as long as it helps you feed the hungry.

    There, fixed it for you ;)

    Seriously though, I find the argument that cloned animals would be looked at as less than “normal,” and because of that would lead to less poorer lives as a bit paper-thin in my opinion. Because as angora rabbit just said, most domesticated stocks are so inbred to be considered monoculture anyway. However, it is a rational thing to keep in mind as we go forward. But is not something we should consider as a roadblock to getting cloned meat to market.

  13. There are three sources cited in this article.

    BBC News UK
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11844141
    26 November 2010
    — Mentions unspecified practical and ethical objections; adds that long-term health impacts are unknown.
    “Cloned cattle food safe to eat, say scientists
    Critics say there are strong ethical and animal welfare reasons to ban its use in European agriculture.
    “There are many unanswered questions on the issue of cloning animals – both ethical and practical – and insufficient regulation,” said a Soil Association spokeswoman. “Not only does cloning have a negative impact on animal welfare, we also have no long-term evidence for the impacts on health.””

    The Sydney Morning Herald
    http://www.smh.com.au/national/cloned-beef-to-be-on-menu-20100904-14vdp.html
    September 5 2010
    — No statements whatever about objections to cloned animals

    Yang X, Tian XC, Kubota C, Page R, Xu J, Cibelli J, Seidel G Jr. Risk assessment of meat and milk from cloned animals. Nat Biotechnol. 2007 Jan;25(1):77-83. Review. PubMed PMID: 17211406.
    — Refers to unspecified safety concerns.
    “Public acceptance of cloned animal products depends upon forthcoming US Food and Drug Administration approval along with convincing safety data.”

    *** *** ***
    The only person quoted who actually had concerns about cloned animals was primarily concerned with “ethics and practicality.” Health concerns were an afterthought.

    Nobody was quoted saying that they were only concerned about health effects and would be reassured once the EU said it was ok.

  14. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Alison, the Amish are often accused of rough treatment of their animals. At any rate, an animal doesn’t have to be a cog to, um, be a cog.

  15. Josie says:

    Beowulff-

    I think I know where Alison is coming from.

    I happen to work with laboratory animals, many thousands over my career, mostly mice. There is a tendency of some human individuals to see these creatures as furry test tubes and not the living pro-crating mammals they are.

    When these critters are mass produced, as they are, some people can get sloppy and start thinking of them as the experimental n or simply as the result they will ultimately produce.

    I think there might be a fear for cattle welfare from the standpoint that cloning will eventually make it easier to mass produce them in even larger quantities, people might think of them more as walking milk jugs or leggy tartare.

    I actually think as long as we have farm workers/owners that do understand that each individual animal has its needs that must be met we will maintain proper respect for the animals dependent on us. Yes cruelty and casual mistreatment occurs but that is more to do with the human than with any breeding technique.

  16. angora rabbit “I am endlessly puzzled over what sets off a public reaction.”

    You don’t watch enough sci-fi movies. For a good genetic engineering/cloning horror story see Mimic. :)

  17. It seems to me that the most compelling concerns I’ve heard of in regards to GM plants is that the patents of the big business seed companies are bad for small farmers, that farmers have been sued for having genes that have drifted to their farm via bees, etc.

    Also the risk of lack of genetic diversity. ie repeat potato famine.

    Not sure if or how this would apply to beef.

  18. Well the farmer’s don’t actually have the genes. Their crop does.

  19. Beowulff,
    By cloning an animal you are treating it like a machine. That in itself is disrespectful. (There are lots of very disrespectful things already happening on farms. Cloning is only an incremental change in a logical sequence, not a qualitative change.)

    Watcher,
    Do you have evidence that cloning animals is useful or necessary to feed the hungry, or that it is a permanent solution to the problem of hunger?

  20. DevoutCatalyst,

    Yes, I know. Last year the dairy farmers in upstate NY were losing money. The market for bull calves was so bad they they couldn’t sell them. The Amish solution was to put them in a pen at the end of the barn to starve to death — to save the cost of a bullet, apparently. (I know this because my cousin is raising a rescued bull calf. She will teach it to walk on a halter and then pass it on to her uncle who will put it in a pasture to eat grass until it is old enough to slaughter. It will then be led quietly on a halter to the end of the road and butchered there so it is not subjected to a frightening ride in a truck.)

    There are lots of ways to show disrespect for animals. Cloning is only one, and not the worst.

  21. Josie,

    Exactly — except that this is already the attitude in agriculture. In ag school raising pigs is called “pork production.” Cloning participates in that culture, and it’s the culture that is at issue for me.

  22. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I look forward to the production of vat meat, since a major objection for me to eating meat is that it’s horribly wasteful in terms of calories in versus calories out. Cheaper and easier to use water and space to produce 100 cal of wheat than 100 cal of beef. Not as tasty.

    The concerns I see over cloning is monoculture, flavour (a subset of monoculture really) and the idea expressed by a friend of mine that if you consistently consume a single set of genes you may end up with a medicine-like effect. It’s a weak objection in my mind, but theoretically possible despite the fact that most things are snipped into basic units by the GI tract.

    As for the objection that cloned cows are treated worse than farm-bred, humans are animal enough that we see a cow as a cow irrespective of source and genetic diversity. I don’t think we’ll treat them any better or worse merely because they are cloned. They’ll still have faces, expressions, make noises when hurt, etc. That doesn’t mean raising meat for consumption is unproblematic, far from it. I just don’t think it’ll raise any moral points as far as different treatment goes.

    They should be working towards a cow that can eat virtually anything rather than specializing in grasses. Corn is really bad for cows, but they’re still fed lots of it and must be dosed and treated to address the results.

  23. LovleAnjel says:

    That culture of poor treatment is what needs to be worked at. We shouldn’t put a hold on new developments because some people that will use them are inclined to be jerks. We should focus on dealing with the jerks instead.

    The cloned animals will not be grown in vats and slid down a shoot into a stall with a captive-bolt gun, they will be put into cows which will birth them with human help, and they will be raised in whatever feedlot or pasture the other cows are in. From the perspective of the rancher I don’t see much difference other than overhead. Because they will start out more expensive, they will likely be treated better because they cost so much more than regular calves. Cloned animals have a higher “value” because of the cost of cloning.

  24. Watcher says:

    Watcher,
    Do you have evidence that cloning animals is useful or necessary to feed the hungry, or that it is a permanent solution to the problem of hunger?

    No, of course I don’t have evidence that cloning is useful or necessary, but there is the possibility that it could help. Is it a permanent solution? It could potentially be a part of that solution, yes. Cloning is just the first step in working towards individuals that are disease-resistant, starvation resistant, etc. This is where the future benefit lies.

    Back to my point; ignoring the potential benefits because you believe that it could lead down the slippery slope to inhumanely treated animals isn’t a good enough argument when faced with people who could be easily sustained by one of these cloned animals.

  25. windriven says:

    Dr. Novella noted: “The EU is at the cautious end of the spectrum when it comes to new methods of food production. For example, they continue to be extremely negative with respect to genetically modified (GM) food.”

    The irony is that, while the EU is cautious about GM food, the EU is much more open new medical devices than is the US and the process of introducing a new device is much simpler in the EU than it is in the US.

  26. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Alison Cumminson 01 Dec 2010 at 11:00 am
    If an animal is a cog, then it doesn’t need to be treated with respect and it’s ok to do whatever you need to it

    A problem with this objection is that it is an objection to an argument that nobody ever makes. It is always brought up in the form of “this is what other people will think”. Unless you actually believe that cloned beings deserve less respect (which is not the same as hypothesizing that they will get less respect), but I doubt that you actually believe that.

    This is a lot like the cynically functional argument for religion, in which religious apologists say “atheism is bad because without god nothing is immoral”. Only opponents of atheism ever say so.

  27. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Alison Cummins on 01 Dec 2010 at 1:00 pm
    By cloning an animal you are treating it like a machine. That in itself is disrespectful.

    More so than forcing a cow to mate with a bull of your choice “naturally”, or forcing the animal to act as a “machine” by pulling a plow?

    I think your real objection is some kind of intuitive discomfort which can’t be expressed in words or arguments.

  28. daedalus2u says:

    Growing meat on the hoof is (and I think always will be) cheaper than growing it in a vat.

    To grow meat in a vat you need the vat, the food supply and the support equipment to keep the meat in the vat alive and growing.

    When you grow meat on the hoof, the “support system” grows along with it, and the “cost” is the cost of the substrate (food, water, air) to make the tissues that perform those tasks.

    Trading off a digestive system that converts grass and grain into absorbable nutrients for machines that do the same thing will come at increased cost. You could reduce tissue compartments like the brain which are not necessary for biomass production. The difference between meat on the hoof and meat from a vat is more a semantic difference when you can genetically engineer your “vat” to be made out of cow hide and use a control system made out of meat (brain and nervous system).

    If meat is going to be grown economically in non-animal format, I think it will be done in genetically engineered plants, where the plant supplies the nutrients to sustain the meat, keep it sterile and all the other things that are necessary. When we have the technology to do that, then why not grow fully formed foods. You wouldn’t grow ham, cheese, lettuce and bread separately, you would grow sandwiches wrapped up in a package with a long shelf life. Break a seal, the sandwich “ripens” and maybe even generates enough heat to melt the cheese (depending on the sandwich type).

    We are a long way from understanding how to do that, but the packaging systems that many plants use for their seeds and fruit now are not that much more complex.

  29. step21 says:

    About the ban in the EU of clone meat etc … we actually recently heard a guest lecture of a MEP (Green/Nordic Left group) who was quite involved with getting GMO products out of the novel foods directive and by extension not allowed at this point. And while even she agreed that so far there is no evidence that products from cloned animals are harmful, she of course claims that more research needs to be done, but most of all, what seemed even more important to her (and apparently to all the other MEPs who agreed with her) was that she said that cloned animals still suffer more than normal animals (f.e. Dolly aged quicker, died sooner) not only in ‘production’ (because not all attempts are successful, so you ‘waste’ life, or even through half births cause pain to the mother animals) and that even when it works due to the process not really working or something it would be more likely to lead to misformation in the cloned animal, which would make it suffer. Not because the DNA would be different, but because something went wrong. Lastly some would also make the argument that it is unethical of course, creating/modifying life etc. I’m not sayin that I agree with these claims, but it is just to show that f.e. in Europe the Ban is for different reasons then outlined by most people in the comments, as far as I know. In fact I would probably disagree with most or all, but right now I really don’t have the time to research what’s based on evidence and what not, especially because I find pro-arguments by farmers/lobbyists etc not really convincing :)

  30. Watcher says:

    I like the way you think D2U! Hot pastrami on rye plant please!

  31. vicki says:

    The advantage of vat-grown meat might be that you could save on transport and/or grow meat in a small space without mistreating actual animals: a vat of tissue doesn’t need exercise.

  32. LovleAnjel says:

    The advantage of vat-meat is that I could bathe in Kobe beef.

  33. DevoutCatalyst says:

    May I join you?

  34. windriven says:

    @vicki

    “The advantage of vat-grown meat might be that you could save on transport and/or grow meat in a small space without mistreating actual animals: a vat of tissue doesn’t need exercise.”

    Mmmmm, vat veal.

  35. I think one issue with public opinion is that GM and cloning is new and unknown to them. If someone doesn’t have an understanding of the science of cloning, it’s just as likely to look dangerous to them as benign. Conversely, what is the appeal of cloned beef to the public? I have not heard of any particular advantages, except a eventual possible cost savings (which the public may or may not see.)

    So, in short for consumers, a nuisance to figure out and no real market appeal.

    Now, if there was GM cloned low cholesterol hamburgers, you might see a change in attitude. Or god forbid, caffeinated steaks (they’re adding caffeine to everything these days.) :) Even humane vat grown beef. Or how about the cow from Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the End of the Universe that wants to be eaten?*

    *reasonably twisted, sorry :(

  36. Mark P says:

    The solution to animal cruelty is to produce animals that don’t feel pain or discomfort. Then they can’t be treated badly! We already breed them ridiculously docile, so now we need to work on their nerve endings.

    Moronic cattle with an enormously high pain threshhold and with a huge tolerance for what they eat would be almost impossible to treat badly. Problem solved.

    Just saying.

  37. daedalus2u says:

    The only reason animals need to exercise to remain healthy is because the control system that keeps their muscles in tone is self-regulating with automatic gain control determined by the level of exercise. Tweak that automatic gain and they put on muscle with no exercise.

    That is probably easier for hoof animals, they are already born being able to walk and follow the herd. They didn’t develop muscles capable of walking in utero via exercise, exercise is not needed, just turn on the muscle control system they had in utero.

  38. Hot pastrami on rye plant please!

    I was thinkin’ more like clone beef ‘n’ cabbage.

  39. JMB says:

    I think there’s some confusion of cloning beef and dairy cattle with genetic engineering. The usual scenario for cloning beef is for the rancher to examine the breeding stock for the best producing cows, when the best producing cow (or bull) ends its productive years, the rancher will clone them to extend their higher productivity (same with dairy cows). The cloned animals become the next generation of breeding stock. The offspring are sold for beef, but when the breeding stock ages, it eventually is sold for its beef as well. So the cloned animals can end up in the food chain, but the majority of animals in the food chain are the offspring of the cloned animals. Cloning is more like a modified version of breeding, animals are selected for their natural production statistics, no one is altering their genes. They are altering the germ cells. The breeding stock (the cloned animals) will live longer than the cows produced and sold for meat. Dairy cows will typically live the length of time that they are productive. Cloned cows are too expensive to produce just to be sold for meat. They are treated better than the average cow because they are the breeding stock.

  40. BillyJoe says:

    “The solution to animal cruelty is to produce animals that don’t feel pain or discomfort.”

    Except that animal cruelty is more about perception than reality. Humans can “feel” the animals’ pain even if the animals can’t. I can squash snails without a care in the world, but not when my sister-in-law is about because I know she would be react as if I had crushed her underfoot. On the other hand, my brother can boil lobsters alive, but he knows not to invite me for dinner when they are on the menu.

  41. daedalus2u says:

    There are a number of issues in raising cattle. Only females produce milk, so dairy farmers only want female calves. Castrated males are used for beef, so farmers raising meat only want male calves. Cloning is a way to have complete control over the gender of the offspring.

    The major “cost” in not using cloning is the opportunity cost of having a 50/50 gender ratio of calves when you want either 90/10 or 1/99 depending on whether you are raising them for meat or milk. You need some female beef cattle to bear the male calves that will be used for meat. If you use cloning, then you can get the gender and the phenotype you want. Saving the opportunity cost is probably enough to pay for the cloning if done on a large scale.

    Cows have to go through a pregnancy before they can produce milk. The calves they produce now are not calves with a phenotype optimized for meat production. With cloning they could be.

    Using cloning would reduce the number of undesired calves brought to term. You wouldn’t have any male calves with a milk producing phenotype or female calves with a meat producing phenotype unless they were wanted for breeding purposes.

  42. Angora Rabbit says:

    Thanks to JMB for clarifying what “cloning” means. I looked at the BBC report and was guessing it meant nuclear transfer, but the language was imprecise.

    There is a legitimate concern in the nuclear transfer technology because of the DNA imprinting issue. While the DNA sequence itself is unaltered by nuclear transfer, there is a second highly regulated process of DNA methylation that turns certain genes on and off in a fairly permanent manner. This epigenetic programming happens in utero and can be rewritten based on the uterine environment.

    Dolly and her ilk ran into health problems in part because we weren’t really aware of epigenetics and its influence on chronic health and disease. At this time of writing the understanding of epigenetics is incomplete and so the cloned animal could be at risk for health issues later in life because of the altered epigenetics. Not sure where this issue stands in the agricultural field.

  43. daedalus2u – I’m not sure why cloning would be more cost effective than artificial insemination or IV with sperm sex selection technology.

    http://jas.fass.org/cgi/content/abstract/77/E-Suppl_2/213

  44. daedalus2u says:

    The way that cloning would probably be implemented in cattle and milk production is to generate embryos via IVF, induce them to divide multiple times and split them into multiple clones and then allow them to grow into multiple clonal embryos, then freeze them. You can then assay one of them to see what gender it is, and if it is the gender you want, you can implant them and bring them to term when you want to.

    If implemented this way, most cattle in the food chain could be clones, but they would be “natural” clones, clones produced by dividing an embryo produced from gametes.

    I don’t think you would do nuclear transfer because there isn’t that much of an advantage. You might do nuclear transfer cloning if you had a superior phenotype that couldn’t breed (for example a gelding), but I think you would use it to produce breeding animals that can produce gametes.

  45. Regarding lowering production costs – sex selection.

    As a goal to increase humane practices on farms and lower fuel consumption, I can see a good reason for sex selection in dairy or beef farming, but over all I am not convinced that “lowering production costs” of beef offers a real benefit to human health. Yes, it could possibly lower the price of beef or it could increase the profit margin of beef distributors, but is there a public health concern that American’s don’t have enough access to beef products due to their cost?

    If looking at an economic model for improving public health in the U.S., one actually might consider moving to raise beef prices and lower prices on fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.

  46. daedalus2u says:

    I think (but haven’t read anything on it recently) that sperm sorting for sex determination is pretty difficult.

    Dairy cows have to go through a pregnancy each year to maintain milk production. That is many more pregnancies than are needed to maintain the supply of milk producing females. The cost of a calf is the cost of the feed used to produce the biomass. You need some male milk cattle to provide gametes for the next generation of female milk cows. But if you had each calf be a female milk producer, then you end up with more than the milk market can support.

    If those calves could be male beef cattle, then the feed and pregnancy are not “wasted” on a non-productive calf (female milk producers in excess of need, male milk cattle, or female beef cattle).

    You would need a few female beef cattle to supply gametes, but with hormonally induced superovulation and cloning, you might only need one per thousand males carried to term.

  47. Regarding Farming, Cloning and humane practices.

    Sometimes I think we meat eaters are overly dismissive of humane practices in farming. In my mind what we consider humane conditions for farming are actually intuitively based on what we consider healthy living practices. We generally like to live with some fresh air and light, we don’t like to be crowded and stand in our own waste, we like to get some exercise and we don’t like to eat our own kind. This is a good recipe for physical health and lowering the spread of disease in both humans and animals.

    Unfortunately, these humane living conditions cost more money. Lowering the cost of meat and dairy production (farming and processing) does come at an increased cost to the consumer though. The risk of antibiotic resistant bacteria from the wide spread use of antibiotics in farming to speed growth and overcome unsanitary conditions is one cost. Increased health care costs for MRSA, e-coli, salmonella, increased government costs in tracking down tainted meat, eggs, etc and testing and tracking diseases such as mad cow could be considered others.

    When it comes to cloning, I think sost likely this is a tool that will be used by large scale factory farms with a focus on decreasing production costs without much regard toward how these practices might increase other costs (in healthcare, testing, tracking, etc) for consumers or governments. So while I can believe that eating cloned beef is plausibly safe, I actually want to see more of how cloning may effect industrial practices as a whole and whether those effects results in a healthier or less healthy food supply for us.

    Of course I realize this doesn’t necessarily fall under SBM’s interests…

  48. BillyJoe says:

    Angora Rabbit

    “there is a second highly regulated process of DNA methylation that turns certain genes on and off in a fairly permanent manner.”

    Depends what you mean by permanent. From the point of view of the organism containing the gene, it tends to be permanent (ie it tends to last the life of the organism). From the point of view of the gene itself, the evidence is that epigenetic effects fade within a few generations (and hence cannot be a factor in long term evolutionary change).

    I only mention this because there is a prominent fringe group of scientists/philosophers who are busily promoting epigenetics as as an actual driver of evolution, especially the evolution of consciousness. They call this neo-Lamarckism.)

  49. Umm, so epigenetic programming is different than de novo mutations. Correct? Incorrect?

  50. Scott says:

    @ daedalus2u:

    If I’m understanding you correctly, the gain you’re talking about would be possible because with cloning, the pregnancies the female milk cattle need to maintain their milk production could be calves NOT actually their own offspring. Essentially using the female milk cattle as surrogates for the beef cattle.

    Have I understood you properly?

  51. Bill Hulet says:

    I think everyone commenting on this story has missed what I believe are the real points.

    The impact of biotechnology on farming is that it pushes the industry out of the hands of small farmers and into those of large corporations. Small farmers simply cannot adopt, as a general rule, the industrial model. People understand this on a “gut” level and oppose this sort of high-tech model because it causes real problems for the rural society.

    Do we want our food supply in the hands of a small number of agro-business corporations? Or do we want it in the hands of a large number of family farms?

    Secondly, this high-tech industrial model of agriculture is usually based on an an extremely simplistic understanding of very complex ecological systems. Biotechnology is a form of biology, but the biologists who do it know ABSOLUTELY ZERO about ecology or the complex interactions between livestock and fields. The stupid fiascos that have come about already because of bio-engineering on the farm (the creation of round-up resistant weeds because of Monsanto’s games with canola come to mind in Canada) are in the public’s mind.

    It might be the case that cloning prize breeding stock will have minimal impact on either the decline of the family farm or the destruction of rural ecosystems, but in politics “thin edge of the wedge” issues are crucially important when it comes to preventing well-financed lobbies from taking over the agenda from the public interest. It is really, really hard to mobilize enough people to create the broad-based support necessary to oppose well-financed lobbies. And it is absolutely impossible to organize such groups with the sort of nuance necessary to tease out the difference between cloning breeding stock and spreading genetically-modified organisms out in a farmer’s field.

    More’s the pity, as it is really important to be able to develop public policy with a greater level of sophistication than we currently have. But proponents of science-based decision-making have to understand that in the current climate the public interest is like a ship-wreck survivor on a plank surrounded by rapacious sharks. If they let their guard down even a little, businesses like Monsanto will take over government policy completely and run everything for their own short-term profit instead of the long-term public interest.

  52. Angora Rabbit says:

    A couple thoughts…

    Yes, I dreadfully oversimplied epigenetics. The seniors get the big lecture tomorrow morning and even that is diluted. :) Thanks, BillyJoe, for the warning about the neo-Lamarkisms. Barker would argue that epigenetic patterns could persist over several generations, and he and others show as much, e.g. their generational studies of populations that experienced significant starvation in utero. So I winced as I typed “fairly permanent.” It certainly can persist over generations, or at least until a different environment rewrites the code. (Look up the very cool studies by I forget whom on maternal licking / non-licking in rats.)

    Don’t forget that there’s a delicious use for male dairy cattle – we call it veal! Yum!

    Dadelus2U, I agree that both dispersion and reimplant of IVF progeny and nuclear transfer would go on. I work with colleagues who are doing nuclear transfer research for cattle. The latter is sought if you’ve got a trait you want to preserve, because that nasty recombination from sexual reproduction is quite likely to be not as faithful as one would like. Curse that sex! :)

    Having said that, good old normal sex is much cheaper for making more animals. But the problem is that the progeny might not have the gene combination that you really want. Nuclear transfer circumvents that problem. Traditional breeding gives us chicken eggs with lower cholesterol and leaner pigs, but there are plenty of changes that could be made to improve nutritional content (= more marketable product) and/or reduce production costs by enhancing feed efficiency.

    Michele, in epigenetics the DNA sequence itself doesn’t change. There’s no mutation. Instead, there are multiple techniques used to assure that a particular gene or chromosome is silenced. A famous example is the silencing of one of the two X chromosomes in women. More recently it was discovered that this also happens on a gene-by-gene basis. It doesn’t happen to all genes. Take a peek at Wikipedia for a great explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

  53. daedalus2u says:

    Scott, yes. The cost of feed that a calf represents is ~$1 per pound.

    Michelle, trying to affect factory farming practices by regulation of cloning is the wrong approach. Cloning has nothing to do with factory farming practices. They are completely orthogonal. Trying to tie them together is to try and make policy from things unrelated to it.

    I appreciate that many people think cloning is icky, and anything that is icky is inhumane, so by banning something icky we are making farming more humane.

    The problem with that mind set is that it is held by people who don’t have the slightest bit of experience with cloning, or with farming, humane or inhumane.

    Living in “the wild” is not humane. Every organism that lives in the wild will die by being chased to death by a predator, or if there are no predators around will die by starvation or by disease, or while fighting for mates. Bears don’t have nuclear families and hold tea parties in the wild.

    Epigenetic effects are still not well understood. Most epigenetic programming occurs in utero. All the differentiation that occurs, and which then distinguishes different cells is via epigenetic programming. The only difference between a liver cell and a brain cell is their epigenetic programming.

    I think the people who suggest that epigenetics might be related to evolution in a Lamarckian way are mistaken. The only way there can be such a thing as epigenetic programming is if there are evolved pathways that cause that specific part of the DNA molecule to be epigenetically programmed. The evolved mechanisms to implement the epigenetic programming that extends over generations had to have already evolved before it could exert those transgenerational effects.

    Angora, I agree that recombination can cause the loss of traits, but as I understand it, cloning a fertilized egg, or an omnipotent cell is pretty trivial compared to somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning. I don’t know how many clones of that cell you can make before it gets “tired”, but it could be many thousands. Making embryos, freezing them and letting some come to term and looking at the phenotype may be a lot easier than somatic cell nuclear transfer, just because the clones from the omnipotent cells are likely to have better epigenetic programming if nothing else.

  54. “Trying to affect factory farming practices by regulation of cloning is the wrong approach.”

    Perhaps. But if objections to cloning are an extension of revulsion against the practices and principles of factory farming, then a committee’s assertion that cloned meat is safe to eat does nothing to address them.

  55. Dadealus2 – I am baffled how you got from my comments of “Sometimes I think we meat eaters are overly dismissive of humane practices in farming.”

    and also

    “”When it comes to cloning, I think most* likely this is a tool that will be used by large scale factory farms with a focus on decreasing production costs without much regard toward how these practices might increase other costs (in healthcare, testing, tracking, etc) for consumers or governments.”

    to your response of…

    “I appreciate that many people think cloning is icky, and anything that is icky is inhumane, so by banning something icky we are making farming more humane.” etc,

    Please note that I never mention banning cloning, happy wild cows, or the ickiness of cloning.

    Nor do I say that anything yucky or “unnatural” should automatically be assumed dangerous or inhumane. I merely said (rephrasing for clarity) I don’t think we should automatically dismiss concerns of humane treatment of farm animals as merely touchy feelie or crunchy granola. I also noted that in a free market economy, a new technology that decreased the production costs of a company sometimes comes with less obvious costs to consumers and taxpayers.

    If you want to disagree with my actual statements, that’s fine by me. I’m open to discussion. But could we stick to my statements, not some reinterpretation of my statements based on your image of me as…what? a California crunchy granola urbanite who releases her tropical parakeets into the Sierra Nevedas with the belief they will be happier there?

    *corrected typo.

  56. Angora Rabbit – thanks for the explanation and link on epigenetics. I look forward to checking it out.

  57. Watcher says:

    Look up the very cool studies by I forget whom on maternal licking / non-licking in rats.

    Heh, Just look up anything by Michael Meaney on pubmed. His lab does all the epigenetic maternal/paternal behavior studies for the most part. He’s even done some studies on human brain tissue where the person had committed suicide, comparing those in a “normal” childhood environment to those that were in a high stress environment. Also, he wrote up a review for Nature Neuroscience a month back or so on epigenetics and their future role in the neurosciences.

  58. Angora Rabbit says:

    “But if objections to cloning are an extension of revulsion against the practices and principles of factory farming, then a committee’s assertion that cloned meat is safe to eat does nothing to address them.”

    We are in agreement. I will extend the discussion and add that it is essential to distinguish between an argument based on science vs. an argument made on, say, political grounds. I see a lot of sloppy thinking when someone (not you – this is a generic comment) makes a claim that a practice is “unsafe” when the data say otherwise. Safety of cloned food is an example, as is the use of BGH in dairy farming. I’ve no problem when folks object to a practice for, say, an economic or a moral issue. But to wrap that economic or moral objection in a scientific wrapping is wrong. And what this website is all about (at least as I understand it).

    Watcher, thanks. I heard him speak at a conference last year but of course my notes are elsewhere. It was a brilliant talk.

  59. Angora Rabbit,

    None of the sources cited by Steven Novella (the BBC news, the Sydney Morning Herald and Nat Biotechnol) suggested that concerns about food safety were a primary concern of people who object to cloning.

    One person was quoted as saying that her concerns were ethical and practical — and that also the meat hadn’t been proven safe over the long term. I agree that throwing that sort of scaremongering into the mix when it isn’t even what you’re really concerned about is multiply problematic. (For one thing, it leads to Steven Novella saying that proving the meat is safe addresses your concerns — it’s clearly a counterproductive strategy in addition to being dishonest.)

    When people who want to clone define the objections to cloning as concerns about unsafe meat and address only those concerns, that is called a straw man argument. Straw man arguments are not what I go to a scientific blog in search of so I am disappointed when I find them.

    It’s possible that meat safety is the primary concern of people who object to animal cloning, but no evidence to this effect was presented in any of the cited sources.

  60. daedalus2u says:

    Michelle, that part of my comment was not directed at you or at anything you said. Sorry to not be more explicit. It was directed at the mindset of people who don’t post on SBM who don’t think in scientific terms but in terms of what is “icky”.

    I just saw a news report where a judge has ordered the destruction of fields of GM sugar beets planted to produce seed of a strain that has already been planted for 4 years because of the claim of irreparable harm. Beets are non-native to North America. All “wild” beets in North America are exotic weeds, not native plants to be protected.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101203/ap_on_re_us/us_food_and_farm_sugar_beets

    The “irreparable harm” they are worried about is pollen from GM plants somehow getting on organic beets and “contaminating” them. The only plausible mechanism of harm from GM pollen is psychological, from the mistaken (actually delusional) belief that GM pollen can cause actual harm.

    I think that most people who do strenuously object to meat from cloned animals being in the food supply have the same mindset as anti-vax people do. Their feelings of fear, while real, are based on magical and even delusional thinking. It is not possible to reason such people out of their beliefs because reason is why they hold them in the first place.

  61. daedalus2u – oh, very well then, carry on. :)

  62. “The only plausible mechanism of harm from GM pollen is psychological, from the mistaken (actually delusional) belief that GM pollen can cause actual harm. ”

    Oh well, this is not relevant, but as an all year round seasonal allergy sufferer, I can assure you that any pollen can cause actual suffering (GM or not). I’m just hoping the bad folks in the world don’t come up with a GMed super goldenrod with extra pollen. That might be the end of me. :)

    I wonder, what does having accidental GM pollen reproduction in your organic crop do to your organic licensing in the U.S? I would suspect that the risk is more bureaucratic, market driven, than psychological, but I don’t know that without looking into it.

  63. daedalus2u says:

    Sugar beets have a two year life cycle. The first year they make the root which has the sugar, and are harvested. They are sensitive to freezing, and likely wouldn’t survive a cold winter. They only make seeds the second year where they tap the sugar stored in the root to make the seeds.

    Sugar beets are never allowed to flower and go to seed except when seeds are being produced, so pollen from a GM sugar beet crop will never affect an organic crop.

    I suspect the lawyers and the judge have never grown or even seen sugar beets.

  64. Bill Hulet says:

    daedulus2u:

    Can you guarantee that no genetically modified sugar beets will ever be overlooked in a field and survive to flower next year? The problem with self-replicating things like plants is that once they escape it is generally impossible to stop their spread.

    Monsanto swore up and down, and around the block, that their round-up read canola would never escape or spread through pollen. Well it did. And now we have weeds that are resistant to round up.

    If people like daedulus2 are proven wrong, can all the people affected take away everything you own and perhaps have you executed for crimes against future generations?

    The problem is that this sort of tinkering with nature is being done without any sort of acknowledgement of a: the irreversibility of the consequences, or, b: that the implications of these consequences can be dramatic. I would suggest that the reason why it is so is because the people doing the research are in an intellectual silo that means that they have no more expert opinion on the implications than the janitors who clean their labs. The difference is, however, that the janitors are not desperately chasing money to support their research, so that they have a more objective point of view.

  65. daedalus2u says:

    If you are talking about Schmeiser, he lied under oath in court. The roundup ready plants that he had were not from wind-blown pollen. The plants were assayed and were found to be ~95% homozygous for roundup resistance. It is not possible for 95% homozygous resistance to occur via windblown pollen. The most you can get is 50%.

    I read the ruling of the judge, he recognized that Schmeiser lied and that his testimony didn’t hold together. That is why he ruled for Monsanto and why he imposed a fine. Judges don’t like being lied to.

    I am not sure what your objection is, you want there to be no use of roundup now, or ever. Weeds become resistant to herbicides all the time, it is called evolution. If too many weeds do become resistant to roundup, then roundup will become useless and farmers will stop using it. The idea that weeds will become resistant to roundup via pollen from sugar beets is pretty unlikely. Sugar beet is not native to North America, so it doesn’t have close weedy relatives that could become resistant via pollen exchange.

    Beets have a 2 year life cycle. If a few beets did manage to not be harvested, did manage to survive being frozen over the winter, and were not eaten by wild animals, and did manage to survive being plowed under and did manage to produce flowers and pollen, what other beet plants are going to be pollinated? Beets used as food are not allowed to flower.

  66. Zoe237 says:

    A knee jerk reaction for technology without adequate big picture perspective is as short sighted as the same for “nature.” I have no opinion, really, I’d eat cloned beef. I do wonder about the long term ecological impacts, as well as political concerns for small farmers.

    From the Union of Concerned Scientists, a few years ago:

    Widespread use of a technology that can provide large numbers of genetic copies has an obvious potential to reduce the genetic diversity of the nation’s food animal herds. U.S. herds are already operating on a perilously narrow genetic base. About 95% of the nation’s dairy cows, for example, now belong to a single breed, the Holstein.

    According to Dr. Donald Coover, a veterinarian and rancher who manages SEK Genetics, one of the major commercial attractions of cloning is the ability to reduce genetic variation, thereby producing a more uniform product and reducing management costs.[39] “It makes management incredibly easier if you’ve got a whole bunch of cows that respond to the same nutritional inputs, to the same disease prevention programs, to the same environment in the same manner,” Coover said.[40]

    He added that through cloning, instead of producing several thousand offspring in the course of his reproductive life (through artificial insemination), a superior animal could sire several hundred thousand offspring.[41] (emphasis ours)

    Although it may be commercially appealing, the further narrowing of the genetic base of dairy and beef cattle is disturbing to many scientists. More uniformity means more vulnerability to disease and to bioterrorism, issues that deserve discussion and analysis. For example, many livestock pathogens are also human pathogens, and therefore the possibility of increasing susceptibility to some of these organisms may increase the possibility of transmission to humans. Where increased disease occurs, increased antimicrobial use is also likely, which may exacerbate antibiotic resistance problems for both animal and human pathogens.

    http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/sensible_pharma_crops/ucs-comments-to-fda-on.html

  67. BillyJoe says:

    daedalus,

    “I think the people who suggest that epigenetics might be related to evolution in a Lamarckian way are mistaken. ”

    If you are interested, here is an article by one of the champions of the “new epigenetic paradigm”, Mae-Wan Ho. (It’s not actually “new” anymore seeing as it was written in 1998). She is a geneticist who retired in 2000.

    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/encyclo.php

    It seems to me she sets up a strawman which she burns with a blow-torch. The genome is not a blueprint but more like a recipe, so of course the environment (internal and external) affects development. Whoever today denies this? And she burns that strawman with the blowtorch she calls “directed genetic change”.

    She has no mechanism (she says “not well understood”) but it seems to me the plasticity inherent in the “recipe” view of the genome as well as the plasticity in the brain that results from the interplay of this recipe with the environment is a more than adequate existing explanation. Those organisms whose responses are sufficiently plastic in the direction allowing them to survive in a changed environment survive and pass on this plasticity to the next generation.

  68. qetzal says:

    Bill Hulet

    The problem is that this sort of tinkering with nature is being done without any sort of acknowledgement of a: the irreversibility of the consequences, or, b: that the implications of these consequences can be dramatic.

    I call BS. It’s the scientists who started this tinkering who lead the way in considering the potential consequences. Look up the 1975 Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA. Or just look at how much goes into testing & preventing possible lateral transfer. New transgenic crops go through WAY more testing than, say, some new hybrid produced by conventional breeding.

    If you want to argue there’s insufficient consideration of possible consequences, fine. But to claim there is no acknowledgement at all is both incorrect and disingenuous.

    Monsanto swore up and down, and around the block, that their round-up read canola would never escape or spread through pollen. Well it did. And now we have weeds that are resistant to round up.

    Do you have a link or citation for this claim? Thanks very much!

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