Modern farm techniques allow folks like me to grow the best products possible–meaning that when we’re doing well, “more of the same” is very much a good thing. We want to grow quality products, and we want to grow them consistently. That’s certainly what I’m getting on my farm this year: Up to 240 bushels of corn on each acre, which is about four times what my grandfather could expect from a bumper crop in his time.
In fact, if I could clone my corn this year, and grow it again next year, I’d be tempted to do so. After all – by definition – cloning means the end result will be identical.
That may sound far-fetched, but cloning technology is beginning to earn a place in agriculture. Any day now, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce that milk from cloned cows is safe to drink and meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. Why? Because there will be no way for regulators or consumers to tell the difference. The end product will be the same.
Although U.S. consumers have welcomed a biotech revolution in agriculture–my corn is genetically improved to fight pests with less chemicals–there appear to be some questions about cloning.
Consumers will come to understand that farmers are interested in cloning technology for a simple reason: They want to produce healthier food. After all, we will not use the technology if it doesn’t make economic sense and is safe for our own family to eat.
We already breed plants and animals to create nutritional traits that consumers want. Farmers have been doing it for thousands of years. Eons ago, there were no tomatoes–but there were little red berries in the wild that eventually were cultivated into the domesticated crops we know today. Something similar might be said of virtually every fruit and vegetable: They are products of careful breeding. That’s why people sometimes say that farmers are the world’s first genetic engineers.
None of this is controversial, of course. A fundamental reason why cloning raises hackles, I suspect, is that because when people hear about animal cloning they worry that human cloning is next. Overwhelming majorities of Americans–around 75 percent, me included–are strongly opposed to human cloning. They worry that we’re stepping onto a slippery slope to a brave new world.
Yet we draw bright lines between human and animal cloning, especially when we recognize how animal cloning can benefit humans.
Consider the case of mad-cow disease–or a lesser-known but more prevalent bovine ailment commonly known as Johne’s disease. The Economist recently described Johne’s disease as “an incurable wasting disease which can reduce beasts to pitiable, diarrhea-racked skeletal creatures.”
Perhaps cloning will allow us to breed animals with a natural resistance to these ailments. If so, technology will help us improve the health of animals, and very possibly the health of humans who eat them and their products as well. This is not a calamity to fear, but an opportunity to enjoy.
There will be other consumer benefits as well, and they’ll be more obvious than those that keep us healthier through preventative measures. Biotechnology will make it possible, for instance, to breed and ultimately clone cows that are able to consistently produce milk with the butterfat content necessary for premium ice cream. Taste will improve and prices will go down.
Moreover, we’re approaching this new frontier with appropriate caution. Cloning won’t become a widely utilized agricultural technology until well after the FDA makes a definitive ruling on its implications for human health. Studies have indicated that cloned animals and their food products are no different from their conventional counterparts, from the standpoint of human health–but the matter still lies before regulators, and we can expect them to weigh in objectively.
Even they won’t have the last word, however. That power will lie with consumers and food companies. If this new technology earns the FDA’s stamp of approval, however, the decision should be an easy one: Send in the clones!
Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.