Animal cloning no barnyard bijou

There was a time when you would be labeled a right-wing extremist for demanding the Food and Drug Administration base decisions on morality and ethics rather than science. No more. The political left regained a congressional majority in part by co-opting moral values voters. Now, they plan to use the same strategy to win supporters for their regulatory agenda. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Take the FDA policy on animal cloning. The agency is set to release a comprehensive study this week concluding that meat and milk from cloned cows, pigs, and goats are safe for consumers.


Thousands of cloned animals have been born since the world met Dolly the sheep in 1996, but critics still claim the process will create monstrous new hybrids in some kind of barnyard “Boys from Brazil.” Nothing could be further from the truth.


After reviewing hundreds of scientific and medical studies, experts at the notoriously risk-averse FDA have given the process a clean bill of health, as have the agency's panel of independent scientific advisers and a National Academy of Sciences committee. That comprehensive risk assessment includes research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture examining more than 140,000 individual measures of nutritional and other compositional characteristics and finding no statistically significant differences between offspring of clones and conventionally bred animals.


Since there are no real questions about consumer safety, the critics have had to capitalize on scare stories and the public's ambivalence about unfamiliar technologies. Activists have even exploited religious and ethical concerns about cloning — intentionally blurring the distinction between humans and other animals.


Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America warns, “Techniques used to clone animals will advance the ability to clone humans.” At one FDA meeting, Ms. Foreman criticized the agency for studying food safety concerns without first considering any ethical and religious implications.


But, wait a minute. Isn't the FDA supposed to focus on safety and leave moral choices to consumers? Isn't that what Democrats argued while holding up the confirmation of two different FDA commissioners?


Of course, there are additional ethical considerations that must be thought through in the debate over human cloning. But there is a fundamental difference between people and livestock. Humans have been using sophisticated scientific methods to control animal reproduction for decades, so we have already settled the arguments critics of animal cloning now raise in opposition.


Another group, the Center for Food Safety, has filed a Citizens' Petition asking FDA to ignore scientific fact and regulate based on science fiction. After purposefully distorting the science, CFS has called on the agency to regulate clones as if they had been altered in some subtle and mysterious way.


But, cloning is not some supernatural process. It merely uses one animal's DNA to create an exact genetic copy, essentially an identical twin born a generation later. Though it has only been a decade since the first clone of an adult mammal was born, most of the individual steps that make cloning possible are a century old.


The transfer of living embryos from one animal's womb to another, for example, dates to the 1800s. Cloning itself has been conducted with invertebrates, amphibians and other non-mammalian animals since the turn of the 19th century. And in vitro fertilization (IVF) was developed for animal breeding in the 1950s.


Even today's proven method of cloning mammals — transferring an adult animal's genetic material to an unfertilized egg — was first envisioned in the 1930s. Its use simply had to wait until these intermediate steps were perfected over the following decades. As a consequence, scientists know today far more about the health and well-being of cloned animals than the skeptics would have us believe.


None of the technical difficulties that cloning critics highlight is unique. Many clonal pregnancies result in miscarriage, and some clones have neonatal health problems, so critics insist moving forward now is inhumane and unethical. But each of these problems is also present in other assisted reproductive technologies, such as IVF and embryo transfer, as well as natural mating. Animal breeders have managed them for decades, so their presence in cloned animals presents no unique ethical or consumer safety issues.


The abundant evidence of safety is why the critics have had to focus attention away from the science. They ask instead, even if we can clone animals safely, why should we?


The answer is simple. Breeders can produce better and safer food by cloning rare animals that produce leaner meat, for example, or are especially resistant to common livestock diseases. Researchers in Asia have even cloned a cow that appears to be resistant to mad cow disease. The ability to drastically reduce illness among animals and to improve consumer safety arguably makes cloning more, not less humane than traditional breeding.


The only strange mutation we've seen is the morphing of radical activists into the keepers of a new moral conscience — one that apparently cares more about animals than humans. But, their agenda is just as misguided, and their arguments just as flawed, as ever. We should all be thankful, then, that FDA has the horse sense not to clone that hogwash.