Son of Frankenfood

Updated: Jan 28 2008, 06:24am hrs
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 Americas 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 industrys 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 Dollya sheep cloned by researchers in Scotland in 1996they 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. Its 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 clonesnot food from the clones themselveswill be sold. This matters because cloning remains a difficult process, and many attempts fail. Catherine Geslain-Lanelle, EFSAs executive director, concedes that there are issues involved in animal welfare, but is convinced that the food-safety concerns are unsubstantiated.

The second reason cloning may not fall into the GMO trap lies in the simple fact that the food industry appears to have learned some lessons from the Monsanto saga. Despite their exuberance, the biotech firms involved in cloning took care to praise the American governments decision to maintain a voluntary moratorium on food from the cloned animals themselves.

Unlike Monsanto, which tried to ignore such problems, todays genetic pioneers are eager to avoid trade friction. They emphasise their desire to build up stocks of cloned animals slowly (only about 600 exist in America, for example), and emphasise their scheme for tagging and tracking all clones.

The third reason to think cloned food may take off, even in places like Europe where GMOs have fallen flat, is the most straightforward one. Monsantos Roundup Ready seeds and other early GMO products helped to reduce pesticide use and increase yields, which benefited producers but offered no compelling benefit to consumers.

In contrast, if the industrys claims are to be believed, food from clones can be tastier, of higher quality and perhaps even healthier. That is because breeders will be able to use cloned animals to produce meat that is reliably leaner, better marbled or more tender, as customer whims dictate.

That points to an ironic twist. Despite these advantages over GMOs, cloned foods may yet hit a needless snag. Eager to avoid any stigma, the industry has persuaded Americas regulator not to require any special labels on food from the progeny of clones. Instead, it says it will label only food that comes directly from clones, should it ever be allowed on sale.

Critics of cloning are predictably displeased. Andrew Barker of Ben & Jerrys complains that the FDAs decision on labelling has really created headaches for us with our supply chain. His customers and some foreign markets will reject cloned foods, he says, but he is not sure how he will be able to verify that his dairy products do not contain milk from the progeny of clones.

Yet advocates of cloning could also come to regret the lack of labels. If steaks made using cloning really do turn out to be healthier or tastier, punters who wish to buy them may not be able to identify them in the shops. If the industry is so confident about the merits of its products, it should not be afraid to label them.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008