Son of Frankenfood?

Jan 28 2008, 00:54 IST
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Summary“IT is beyond our imagination to even find a theory that would cause the food to be unsafe.” With that ringing endorsement, Stephen Sundlof, the chief food-safety expert at America’s Food and Drug Administration, recently declared food derived from the offspring of cloned cows, pigs and goats to be safe for human consumption.

“IT is beyond our imagination to even find a theory that would cause the food to be unsafe.” With that ringing endorsement, Stephen Sundlof, the chief food-safety expert at America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recently declared food derived from the offspring of cloned cows, pigs and goats to be safe for human consumption. The decision came just days after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) publicly reached the same conclusion.

At first blush this seems likely to lead to a repetition of the controversies that surrounded the arrival of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture more than a decade ago. Back then an over-zealous industry (led by Monsanto, an American GMO pioneer) touted the benefits of a novel food technology. Scientific bodies on both sides of the Atlantic agreed that GMOs could be used safely, but politics halted their advance in Europe.

Could the same saga unfold with cloning? Once again the biotechnology firms sound a bit brash, much as Monsanto did. James Greenwood, head of BIO, the lobbying arm of the American biotechnology sector, bragged that, thanks to his industry’s efforts, animals have now been successfully cloned on six continents. David Faber, the head of Trans Ova, an American firm leading the charge, claims this technology will make possible ‘elite breeding’ that will lead to faster-growing, disease-resistant and genetically superior animals.

To activists opposed to cloned food, meanwhile, the FDA and EFSA decisions mean only one thing: Frankenfoods are on their way. Since the creation of Dolly—a sheep cloned by researchers in Scotland in 1996—they have rallied many thousands to sign petitions and attend protest marches dressed as cloned cows and the like.

So far it all sounds like an identical copy of the fight over GMOs, which remain suspended in controversy in Europe even as they have taken off spectacularly in America, Brazil, India and other countries. It is true that cloning can be used as a step in the creation of transgenic animals, but the procedures approved do not involve transgenics: no foreign DNA is introduced. “It’s just like having an identical twin, born at a different time,” says one researcher. This suggests that cloning can plausibly be thought of as just another tool used by animal breeders alongside artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation and so on. Cloning has long been commonplace in plant breeding.

Moreover, only the milk and meat from the offspring of clones—not food from the clones

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