On January 15, 2008, the FDA announced that it had concluded that the meat and milk from cloned animals is as safe for human consumption as that of non-cloned animals. Yet many people are still suspicious. The low success rate of cloning and the occasional deformities of animals that suffer and die young worries many people. Just the thought of it can seem a little unnatural, and the fact that meat coming from cloned animals will not have to be labeled separately from other meat has many people up in arms. Nobody wants to be eating a steak that once had a third eye and antennas. That’s what lobsters are for.
But is such meat safe? To explore that, let’s first address a few common questions and misunderstandings:
How is an animal cloned?
To start, an egg cell is emptied of its genetic material. After being hollowed out, scientists replace it with a nucleus from the animal they are cloning. The egg is then inserted into a womb and gestated normally. Through this, breeders hope to raise animals with the same tender meat or premium milk that the parent animal seemed to provide well.
What exactly is a clone?
The idea of an identical ‘clone’ is somewhat misleading. Although scientists take DNA identical to the donor, DNA doesn’t work quite so simply. It is dependent on a variety of influences: environmental factors, chemicals and hormones in the womb, the health/age/eating habits of the mother, etc. There can also be random mutations during growth. DNA is not written in stone, but determined by a heredityenvironment interaction. Scientists generally refer to this as epigenetic DNA. Genes can be turned off or turned on by factors in the environment, which can completely alter genetic expression. Even identical twins who share the same genes and the same womb will diverge as they grow and epigenetic alterations accumulate in each twin. Everything from the amount of nurturing a parent gives their young to the diet and living conditions influence genetic expression.
So regardless of what science fiction movies promote, the idea of making a carbon copy of yourself or of anything else-is at least as of now a scientific impossibility. Genes start the equation, but other factors take it from there. This is why when scientists go on the news touting their cloned animals, some of us look on in amusement because the mother animal is pure white but its clone is brown with black spots. A true DNA ‘clone’ is never an exact replica of its parent, because influences beyond our control regulate gene expression.
How practical is cloning?
Cloned animals are very expensive. The average clone costs around $20,000. Therefore, even when an animal is cloned for its meat or milk, the cloned animals themselves will never be eaten, it’s their offspring that ranchers are after. So it’s unlikely that you’ll be eating identical twin rib-eyes anytime soon. Cloned animals are used for breeding purposes only, and are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, it’s just a high-tech way of trying to get a better animal, similar to the way people breed prize racehorses in the hopes that their offspring will be fast and athletic champions just like their parents.
The bottom line
Although the thought may be unsettling to some, from the science we’ve explored there seems to be no apparent risk to consumers from cloned meat. The FDA seemed to find no danger in its use, either, though some recent shortcomings and rumors of corporate influence leave many quick to distrust the FDA. However, to put things in perspective, we’ve been eating genetically modified food crops for decades now, and most of us have yet to grow a third eyebrow. (Most of us.) Genetically modified crops, at least theoretically, actually have the potential to be far more dangerous than cloned meat, because in crop supplies we’re actually tinkering with the genetic code to create entirely new strains of plants. Cloned meat still contains material that was originally derived naturally. Scientists are merely taking the prize animals and duplicating what nature originally did on its own.
The more legitimate risks are not about safety, but about the environment
There is one legitimate risk in cloning animals for meat or milk production, not having to do with your eating a clone, but with the risk of eliminating genetic diversity in livestock herds. Some scientists fear that if too many clones produce too many offspring animals, the genetic similarities will leave the entire herd at risk of being wiped out by disease. Diversity is nature’s hedge against extinction. Cloning too many animals could erase nature’s hard work over the millennia to ensure that a cow’s family tree has lots of branches. In the event of some super-virus wreaking havoc on the population, genetic diversity usually ensures at least a portion of the population carries biological immunity or has the strength to fight it off. By engineering all animals to be virtually identical, we could put cattle populations at risk in the event of of some massive contagion.
There are also some reasonable concerns about the potential for genetically modified animals getting loose and becoming an invasive species that crowd out native ones. For example, this concern has been expressed about genetically modified salmon, with environmentalists fearing that GMO salmon from fish farms could somehow escape into the ocean and threaten native salmon species.
So to answer the question, there shouldn’t be any risk to consumers from this practice.
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