In 1996 the world said hello to Dolly, and to a host of ethical and scientific questions regarding animal cloning. Now the European Union is trying to turn back the clock on biotechnological progress.
Last month the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, announced that it would propose a five-year ban on the cloning of animals for food production.
John Dalli, the EU commissioner for health and consumer policy, acknowledged that there are no proven health risks associated with consuming the meat or milk of cloned animals. “The scientific opinion is that [meat from cloned animals] cannot be differentiated in any way from food from normally bred animals,” he said. The European Food Safety Authority conducted a review of the topic in 2008, which concluded that “there is no indication that differences exist in terms of food safety between food products from healthy cattle and pig clones and their progeny, compared with those from healthy conventionally-bred animals.”
So why the ban?
Proponents say the ban is primarily motivated by concerns for animal welfare, rather than concerns for consumers’ health. According to Dalli, clones have higher mortality and abnormality rates than other animals. Fewer than one in five clones survive the first days of life, the Wall Street Journal reported. The 2008 EFSA report found that “A significant proportion of clones, mainly within the juvenile period for bovines and perinatal period for pigs, has been found to be adversely affected, often severely and with fatal outcome.” The cloning process also poses risks to the surrogate mothers who carry cloned embryos, Dalli said.
We are apparently seeing the world’s first right-to-life movement for animals that are being raised as food. Or we are seeing luddism and trade protectionism cloaked in an animal-rights argument. Take your pick.
Since these animals are primarily being raised for meat, early mortality is more a sign of inefficiency in the still-new technology of cloning than of animal abuse or cruelty. There is no evidence that cloned animals experience unusual suffering when they do survive. According to the 2008 EFSA report, “Most clones that survive the perinatal period are normal and healthy, as determined by physiological measurements, demeanour and clinical examinations.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that breeding a cloned animal currently costs $15,000 to $20,000. That is far from cost-effective for mass-produced meat. But as the technology evolves, cloning will likely provide an innovative way to reduce the costs of food production by allowing farmers to reliably replicate star pigs or cows. Banning this emerging science makes it more difficult to satisfy the carnivorous desires of 7 billion people who have an increasing appetite for meat. We can safely assume that this would make animal-rights activists happy.
The idea of “Frankenfood” has been a particularly powerful myth in Europe. The EU already bans the planting of most genetically modified crops. Recent proposals to give member states greater leeway in deciding which genetically modified crops to grow have proven highly divisive. Yet in many cases, opponents of genetically modified crops rely on general condemnations of new technologies rather than evidence of specific health or environmental risks. One opponent, a member of Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian, “Thanks to the support of the UK government, commission president (José Barroso) has become a stooge of the powerful agro-tech industry, which threatens to dominate the global food industry of the future if left unchecked.”
The European Commission’s proposal smacks of old-fashioned economic protectionism. The companies at the forefront of the cloning movement are pretty much all located on this side of the Atlantic, including Texas-based Viagen Inc., Pennsylvania-based Cyagra Inc. and Iowa-based Trans Ova Genetics. For now, the EU ban would not prohibit the importation of embryos and semen from cloned animals, or meat and milk from the offspring of clones. However, according to the commission’s statement, “The establishment of a traceability system for imports of reproductive materials for clones, such as semen and embryos of clones is also envisaged.”
The ban may, therefore, be the first move in locking out an industry that is developing overseas so European farmers who rely on lower-tech methods will not face as much competition. The EU’s existing bans on most genetically modified crops and factory-farm meat also serve to limit the influence of the United States in the European market.
European leaders who attended last week’s G-20 economic summit were rightly critical of American economic policy that threatens to drive down the dollar and trigger global trade barriers in response. But the Europeans are trying to have things both ways, exhorting Americans to become competitive and increase exports while at the same time blocking progress in areas where the United States enjoys a technological edge. This is not a new trend, either.
Nobody stands to benefit from a trade war, and nobody should want one. The Eurocrats, however, ought to be mindful of a simple fact: Their countries sell more stuff over here than we sell over there. The Census Bureau reports that the U.S. trade deficit with the European Union, which was $61 billion in 2009, had reached nearly that level just in the first nine months of this year. We are all likely to lose if trade is curtailed, but the Europeans have more to lose than we do.
The issue calls for more openness and less hypocrisy. That is frequently not a major concern of EU officialdom, but Americans ought to make it clear that we are paying attention to how our agricultural technology industry is being treated over there.