Closing the Barn Door After the Cows Have Gotten Out
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the way for the eventual sale of meat and dairy products from cloned animals, saying, in effect, that consumers face no health risks from them. The next day, the Department of Agriculture asked farmers to keep their cloned animals off the market until consumers have time to get over their anticloning prejudice. That is one prejudice I plan to hold on to. I will not be eating cloned meat.
The reason has nothing to do with my personal health or safety. I think the clearest way to understand the problem with cloning is to consider a broader question: Who benefits from it? Proponents will say that the consumer does, because we will get higher quality, more consistent foods from cloned animals. But the real beneficiaries are the nation’s large meatpacking companies — the kind that would like it best if chickens grew in the shape of nuggets. Anyone who really cares about food — its different tastes, textures and delights — is more interested in diversity than uniformity.
As it happens, the same is true for anyone who cares about farmers and their animals. An agricultural system that favors cloned animals has no room for farmers who farm in different ways. Cloning, you will hear advocates say, is just another way of making cows. But every other way — even using embryo transplants and artificial insemination — allows nature to shuffle the genetic deck. A clone does not.
To me, this striving for uniformity is the driving and destructive force of modern agriculture. You begin with a wide array of breeds, a truly diverse pool of genes. As time passes, you impose stricter and stricter economic constraints upon those breeds and on the men and women who raise them. One by one, the breeds that don’t meet the prevailing economic model are weeded out. By the beginning of the 21st century, you’ve moved from the broad base of a genetic pyramid to its nearly vanishing peak, which is to say that the genetic diversity present in the economically acceptable breeds of modern livestock is minute. Then comes cloning, and we leave behind all variation.
Cloning is not unnatural. It is natural for humans to experiment, to try anything and everything. Nor is cloning that different from anything else we’ve seen in modern agriculture. It is another way of shifting genetic ownership from farmers to corporations. It is another way of creating still greater economic and genetic concentration in an industry that has already pushed concentration past the limits of ethical and environmental acceptability.
It always bears repeating that humans are only as rich as the diversity that surrounds them, whether we mean cultural or economic diversity. The same is true of genetic diversity, which is an essential bulwark against disease. These days there is less and less genetic diversity in the animals found on farms, and farmers themselves become less and less diverse because fewer and fewer of them actually own the animals they raise. They become contract laborers instead.
It is possible to preserve plant and crop diversity in seed banks. But there are no animal banks. Breeds of animals that are not raised die away, and the invaluable genetic archive they represent vanishes. This may look like a simple test of economic efficiency. It is really a colossal waste, of genes and of truly lovely, productive animals that are the result of years of human attention and effort. From one perspective, a cloned animal looks like a miracle of science. But from another, it looks like what it is: a dead end.