Monday, 23 August 2010

Cloning futures?

It has recently emerged that meat from cloned animals has entered the UK food chain without authorisation under the Novel Food Regulations. The safety of these products, the welfare of the cloned animals and how the general population perceives the risk of this technology pose challenges for policymakers. In the European Parliament, MEPs voted to ban cloning-derived products and this could become EU law in the autumn.

In December 2007, the Daily Mail announced that a calf which was the offspring of a cloned cow, had been born in the UK, apparently without the knowledge or approval of the regulatory authorities. In response, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was tasked with investigating safety aspects and the European Group on Ethics of science and new technologies (EGE), the ethical implications of food products from cloned farm animals.  This original calf (named Dundee Paradise) and her contemporaries are now adults and are reproducing and producing milk, causing the recent media attention.

Why is cloning regarded with such disfavour? There are three main reasons. A large part stems from the welfare problems experienced by clones. Arguments have been advanced by some scientists that these problems in cattle have been mainly resolved, but my understanding is that some individual animals clone more easily than others, so that clones from some animals consistently have many fewer welfare problems.

But are cloning practices restricted just to these animals that clone well? That seems unlikely. Progeny of clones, however, don’t seem to have these welfare problems.  The welfare problems are also much less in cloned pigs. If welfare was the only concern then, if it was possible to produce cloned animals so that there were no adverse consequences to welfare, then the technology would become acceptable. But the second concern relates to the morality of cloning: for some, cloning is just plain wrong, particularly if applied on a wide scale using the factory production line mentality to living animals. Those who argue against cloning from an animal welfare basis may also have ethical concerns about the technology that could never be met by focussing on welfare standards. Food safety is the third issue. Expert committees have not found cause for concern regarding food safety but public surveys suggest a high degree of suspicion. A Eurobarometer report in 2008 found that 84% of the 25,607 EU citizens asked felt that there was insufficient knowledge about the long-term health and safety effects of using cloned animals for food.  Over half (61%) felt that animal cloning was morally wrong and a smaller proportion (41%) that animal cloning would cause animals unnecessary pain, suffering and stress. In the UK, participants in four deliberative reconvened workshops run for the Food Standards Agency by Creative Research in 2008, were again concerned about the safety of food from cloned animals and were fearful that the process may somehow create new diseases, such as BSE. They were also concerned about the morality of cloning animals and, as with the Eurobarometer survey, there was a demand for labelling of food derived from cloned animals and from their progeny.

Technology has offered new possibilities but to what extent does cloning fulfil a real need?  To breed ‘better’ animals more quickly might help address food security concerns by increasing productivity. Some might argue that we don’t need cloning as alternative approaches could be used to achieve these same ends. Others may argue that using cloning to assist breeding could enable other important breeding goals to be achieved more quickly, for example, reducing the environmental and climate impact of livestock or increasing disease resistance. But what else might cloning be used for? If you had a valuable bull, perhaps with some unusual characteristic, being able to keep a clone for a ‘spare’ in case the bull breaks a leg or something else catastrophic happens to it, might be attractive. How about storing cells from rare breeds in a biobank to be available to use cloning techniques to ‘recreate’ animals in case of sudden disease outbreaks or natural disasters that would otherwise decimate irreplaceable stocks?

The European Parliament has voted to ban cloning, how do they propose that legislation be written? And will it also prevent the above or other potentially useful applications that we may only think of in the future? The European Parliament earlier planned to regulate products from cloned animals and their progeny under the Novel Food Regulations which would have required labelling of these products.  Since there is no ‘test’ for cloning nor an obvious scientific basis for developing such a test, this labelling would need to rely on traceability, which might be possible in the EU given the current requirements for cattle traceability but would seem to be very difficult for some products such as powdered milk or gelatine etc.

The development of commercial cloning raises a number of further issues. The first is how relatively small companies (in this case based in the USA) are able to promote technologies that can then quickly have world-wide implications. Farming has traditionally had affinity with a local geography and culture but this has changed with the advent of globalisation of biotechnology and trade in food. The number of progeny of clones reported in the UK is small, eight was the last reported by the Food Standards Agency, in contrast to the over 80m cattle reported to be in the EU by Eurostat.  But the animals with one parent a clone will themselves multiply. Reports of 97 offspring by the BBC indicate how quickly they can increase in number. These animals have a grandparent who was a clone. How long does the ‘moral taint’ of cloning continue?

These are really difficult issue to deal with. There is little evidence that EU public want this technology, yet there is also little evidence that products from cloned animals are unsafe to eat.  At least as important are the negative connotations associated with cloning. The call for a ban on cloning farm animals was made strongly by the European Parliament. Arguments against farm animal cloning were made even by those parliamentarians who would normally seem to advocate biotechnological developments. This appears to be less a case of regulating a hazardous technology but rather more of one that causes nebulous anxiety on a variety of different levels.

Ann Bruce, Senior Research Fellow

No comments: