‘If anything, this milk will be better quality’
In the wake of the NYT revelations, a genetics expert tells spiked that it’s foolish to cry over cloned cows’ milk.
Following an article published in the New York Times on Friday, in which a UK-based dairy farmer admitted that his farm has been ‘using milk from a cow bred from a clone as part of his daily production’, the British media gradually picked up the bovine scent. Come Monday morning, the Daily Mail clearly felt it had a man-bites-dog sensation on its hands. ‘Clone farm’s milk is on sale’, screamed its front page. While other media outlets have not been quite as titillated by this story of cows-make-milk as the Mail has been, it has still been causing a bit of a stir.
All of which is a little puzzling given that it’s difficult to work out what exactly the problem with this cloned cow’s offspring’s milk actually is. As Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, head of developmental genetics at the UK National Institute for Medical Research, told spiked, ‘One could argue that the milk from these cows is, if anything, actually going to be of a higher quality [than other cow breed’s milk]’.
While the quality of the milk might be a question of taste, one thing that does seem certain is that there is no reason for thinking that this milk poses any health threat. In the words of the US Food and Drug Administration in 2008, ‘[there is no known] science-based reason to distinguish between products from clones and products from conventionally produced animals’. In fact, insofar as these cows are merely the offspring of cloned cows – and not the cloned cow itself – they are essentially just like any other cow. ‘There’s no genetic modification at all’, explained Lovell-Badge. ‘It’s just like making an identical twin. You’re not introducing any genetic traits.’ In an attempt to put any health threat into further perspective, one geneticist told a Telegraph journalist that ‘the chances would roughly be the same as that of your mother developing toxic milk while breastfeeding you as an infant.’ That is, slim to non-existent.
The benefits of using cloned cows – whether the clones themselves or their offspring – are far from non-existent, however. And, in terms of rationale, neither is the procedure very new. Rather cloning simply allows farmers to improve what they have been doing for thousands of years: breed their livestock selectively. The cows we see munching their way around the farm fields of the UK are not the amorous result of spontaneous bovine self-herding, but are the products of millennial-long human intervention. There has never been anything natural about it. As Lovell-Badge points out, ‘Humans have been selectively breeding cattle for thousands of years. The various well-established breeds in the UK for example have been bred because they like the particular climate and the particular grass that we have here and they vary in terms of whether they’re good for milk or beef. That is a product of selective breeding. The use of the cloning procedure is just a way of speeding up the selection of traits which are going to be beneficial.’
So, for example, having identified a cow with a high milk-yield, or one particularly resilient in a harsh, wet climate, the farmer can now call on cloning procedures to make an identical twin which will have the same properties. Whereas good old-fashioned selective breeding could take ages to fix a trait in a herd of cattle, cloning in this way is far more rapid and reliable.
With the benefits eclipsing any mythical health threat, it does raise the question: what exactly is everyone’s problem? Ostensibly, it’s a legal thing. Under existing European Union legislation, one is not allowed to market a ‘novel food’ – ‘a food or food ingredient that does not have a significant history of consumption within the EU before 15 May 1997’ – until it has been officially approved. The UK Food Standards Agency says that no such approval has been given, hence the New York Times’ dairy farmer is in trouble.
But there is more to this than a regulation breach. This crying over cloned milk testifies to a state-endorsed suspicion of genetic modification and cloning per se. Hence, while the existing EU legislation permits ‘novel food’, official approval permitting, a bill recently passed by the European Parliament will, when implemented, lead to a blanket ban on meat and milk from clones and their offspring. A French MEP, Corinne Lepage, explained the decision: ‘Although no safety concerns have been identified so far with meat produced from cloned animals, this technique raises serious issues about animal welfare, reduction of biodiversity, as well as ethical concerns.’
What is clear from Lepage’s statement is that the actual foodstuffs produced, no matter how indirectly, from cloned animals are not the problem. Rather the issues concerning Lepage lie outside the scientific endeavour, whether in vague ‘ethical concerns’ or in so-called animal welfare. Moreover, these concerns themselves need neither be fully articulated nor valid. What counts is simply the allusion to them, the suggestion that these are concerns that exist among the general public. In the UK a co-author of an FSA report on clone farming and food used the same tactic to justify the UK’s regulation-heavy approach: ‘The majority of people [questioned] came to the conclusion that they would not want to eat such food. The overwhelming majority either did not want it or were unsure.’ Likewise, Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming says: ‘I would be appalled if milk from a clone offspring cow is coming into the food chain in the UK… the public is deeply concerned about this and does not want it.’
The concerns are not groundless, of course. Take the issue of ‘animal welfare’: ‘Clearly when doing the cloning procedure, you start off with quite a few attempts before you get an embryo that is likely to develop’, says Lovell-Badge. ‘And then some embryos will fail during pregnancy, and then some that will be born may carry some abnormalities. So there are animal welfare issues here.’
‘But’, he adds, ‘cattle, as it turns out, are not as affected as other species are by the cloning procedure, so it’s a lot more efficient and there’s far less evidence of abnormalities. After mice, cows are probably the species that have been cloned the most, so there’s a lot of experience in cloning cows.’
What soon becomes clear is that the Europe-wide clampdown on cloned animal food derives not from any tangible health risk, or from the sadistic maltreatment of animals, but from officialdom’s perception of what the public fears and thinks, no matter how irrational. And no wonder the public might seem anxious about such new genetic procedures and technologies. In this area, the state has for far too long seemed intent, not on dispelling fears and concerns, but on simply managing them. Happy to invoke the science when it suits a particular policy objective, the UK government and others have repeatedly proven feeble and cowardly when dealing with issues thrown up by the actual science – especially genetics. So, before the disproportionately vocal objections of animal welfare groups, the state has lacked the authority to stick up, not for animals, but for those for whom farmers actually raise livestock: namely, the human species. And faced by public fears of the possible effects of fiddling with nature, the state has lacked the confidence to defend scientific experimentation.
It is this weakness, this lack of authority, that seems to lie at the source of the farcical furore around cloned cows’ milk. Too afraid of the presumed public reaction to cloning technologies, a weak state draws on it instead as a source of legitimacy.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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