Paul Vallely: Cloning will not feed the hungry

We may feel queasy eating manipulated meat, but more troubling is the motivation of the affluent West
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The Independent Online

Photographers, like poets, understand the power of suggestion. Which is why they get low on the ground and point the camera upwards towards the cow, so its muzzle becomes huge and an enormous head dwarfs its spindly body. "Mad cow", it tells us, without the need for anyone to use the words. That's what you'll be like, it says, if you eat beef from a cloned bullock.

But maybe you have already. The Food Standards Agency, which is soon to go the way of all quangos, last week revealed that two cloned cattle, bred on British farms, have been slaughtered and sold as meat over the past year. It is believed the meat was used in pies or burgers sold in Scotland, which probably knocks the deep-fried Mars bar from the top of the list of that nation's most exotic dishes.

The most recent of this meat to enter the human food chain was from a cow named, weirdly enough, Parable. Greek scholars will recognise this as the rhetorical term for a short tale that illustrates a universal moral truth. The trick is to disentangle the science from the superstition and discern what that truth might be.

The scientific consensus seems pretty clear that meat or milk from cloned cows, or their offspring, will be no different from that of a normal cow. There are no scientific mechanisms that would allow it to be otherwise. The US Food and Drug Administration, which has been monitoring cloned food since 2001, has declared it to be safe – and, indeed, indistinguishable from normal meat and milk. Our own FSA agrees, though it is perturbed that cloned food got through the European Union's "novel foods" regulations without anyone even declaring its provenance.

True, scientists at the University of Connecticut found that cloned cow meat was slightly higher in fat and fatty acids than are the other 2,200,000 beef cattle slaughtered in the UK every year, but the variations were within beef industry standards. And cloned beef is, at any rate, a lot less fatty than corned beef. But that doesn't get us passed the yuck factor induced by words such as "cloning". Surveys show that the vast majority of the public feel vaguely queasy at the idea of giving Mother Nature any more of a helping hand than artificial insemination or selective breeding.

But is this merely Luddite? Cloning is not as radical as genetic engineering. No alien material is added, as when fish genes are inserted into tomatoes. Cloning is, rather, reproducing an exact copy of the original. A cloneburger is 100 per cent cow. Genetically, a clone is no different from an identical twin; it is just that the two are born at different times to allow breeders to introduce desirable traits into stock faster than with ordinary breeding.

Of course it is not "natural" in the sense of "happening in nature", but then neither is growing plants from cuttings, grafting fruit trees, giving blood transfusions or replacing faulty human heart valves with ones taken from pigs. The history of science, from animal breeding to chemical pharmacology, is full of breakthroughs that once felt taboo-busting.

The European Parliament last month voted for a blanket ban on food from cloned animals, though MEPs spoke about animal welfare, the threat to biodiversity and ethical concerns as well as food safety. The EU Commission and member governments – weary from battles with the US over GM crops – are likely to be very wary about risking a new trade war with major agricultural nations such as the US, Brazil and Argentina.

But some rationalisation of the rules is needed. In Britain at present, a scientist requires a Home Office licence to do pure cloning research, while cloning for entirely commercial purposes is totally unregulated. And there are no restrictions on importing semen from a cloned animal, so it is already possible that tens of thousands of pigs and cows in Europe are clone offspring. The Swiss government has admitted that "several hundred" of its cattle are second- or third-generation descendants of clones. Cheese and salami imported into the UK can be from cloned animals with no restrictions; labelling is not even required.

Some labelling rules would reassure those whose fears are not allayed by the blandishments of the scientists – or who point out darkly that nature has a way of slapping down human hubris. Remember the hapless John Gummer who was photo-opped offering his daughter a beefburger in 1990 to prove that mad cow disease was not as bad as it was cracked up to be, after farmers came up with the wheeze of feeding ground-up bits of dead sheep to vegetarian cows?

In any case, if you clone a prize cow, the result will have the same DNA; but it may not be so fine a specimen. Only between 1 and 5 per cent of clones survive to birth. Many have birth defects, including respiratory, digestive, circulatory, nervous, muscular and skeletal abnormalities. Some are so big that their mothers die giving birth. Some have a higher propensity for developmental problems, such as mental retardation.

If your only concern was food safety, you might argue that all that was irrelevant. Milk is still milk, whether it comes from a retarded cow or a clever one. But that cannot be the only consideration. I am not a Darwinian sentimentalist who believes that there is no moral difference between animals and humans. I think that language, grammar, philosophy, religion, poetry, painting, music, science, technology and the self-consciousness of history – all of which allow us to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors – give the lie to that. But it undermines our morality if we take a purely instrumental view of animals.

So Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, leader of the team who created Dolly the sheep, is right to say that, while he would have "no problem" eating cloned meat, he does see troubling ethical concerns about animal cloning on an industrial scale. You do not have to be a vegetarian to agree. In any case, cows and bulls appear to have been at this breeding business successfully enough for several millennia without the assistance of scientists. So what is cloning really for?

The answer, as ever, is making money. Cloning a cow is expensive; it costs around £20,000 per animal as against the normal £1,000 cost. So cloning to eat would not make commercial sense. But cloning prime beasts from which to breed is another story. Cloning is about trying to create whole new breeds that will give leaner meat, higher yields of milk and enhanced disease resistance for lower inputs of grain and soya. Biotech cattle-breeding companies will not be cloning scrawny cows that can live longer on the edge of African deserts as climate change advances.

That raises a different raft of questions about profits, who shares in them, and whether global warming is best served by cloned beef and dairy cattle eating soya from cleared rainforests or standard beasts eating grass that nothing else would consume.

Send in the clones? It might not be such a good idea for humankind to be losing our timing this late in our career. Copy-cow burger? I'll have the beans on toast, thanks.

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