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Dec 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 21)

Benighted EC Politicians Reject Food from Cloned Animals

Recently Implemented Ban Defies Voluminous and Persuasive Scientific Data

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    Henry I. Miller, M.D.

    Misconceptions about the physical and biological world can persist long after the science is settled. Benighted inventors regularly propose ways to obtain unlimited energy from perpetual motion machines that violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example, and a group called the Flat Earth Society insisted until at least 2001 that our planet was not round.

    European Luddites are in the same category when it comes to many innovative technologies, although they represent only evolutionary improvements over existing products or processes. Benighted politicians there seem determined to discourage certain innovations in food technology even when worldwide consensus affirms their safety.

    In July of this year, the European Parliament called for a ban on commercializing foods derived from cloned animals and their offspring, and in October the European Commission proposed sweeping, temporary bans on animal cloning for food production. The proscriptions would encompass the use of cloned farm animals and the marketing of food from clones, and also create a system to trace imported genetic material such as semen and cloned embryos.

    These draconian, anti-innovation proposals conflict with the expert opinions of the European Food Safety Authority, which has said repeatedly that with respect to food safety, there is no difference between milk and meat from conventionally bred animals and those obtained from clones and their offspring.

    Assurances of food safety seem to be insufficient, however. "Although no safety concerns have been identified so far with meat produced from cloned animals, this technique raises serious issues about animal welfare and reduction of biodiversity, as well as ethical concerns," said French parliamentarian Corinne Lepage in July.

    Rubbish. After six years of deliberation, in January 2008 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally—and rightly—concluded that food from cloned animals is safe, raises no environmental or other concerns, and may appropriately be sold and consumed. Evaluations in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have come to the same conclusion about safety and other factors. These decisions were based on voluminous and persuasive scientific data.

    But here’s the clincher: It seems to have completely escaped the European politicians who continue to prattle on about issues like animal welfare, biodiversity, and ethics that cloning technology of one sort or another is already widely applied to a variety of foods that Europeans and American consume routinely and uncontroversially.

    As Nature Biotechnology editorialized about this issue in January 2007: "The irony in all this is that food from clones has been a part of our diet for years. Many common fruits (e.g., pears, apples, oranges, and lemons) and several vegetables (e.g., potatoes and truffles) are clones. And most of us have probably ingested meat and dairy products from livestock cloned by natural reproduction (monozygotic siblings), mechanical embryo-splitting, or even nuclear transfer from an embryonic donor cell into an enucleated oocyte. Regulators traditionally paid scant attention to clones as a group—and rightly so."

    Finally, according to The New York Times, "a handful of breeders in Switzerland, Britain, and possibly other countries have imported semen and embryos from cloned animals or their progeny from the United States, seeking to create more consistently plump and productive livestock. And although no vendor has publicly acknowledged it, meat or dairy products originating from such techniques are believed to be already on supermarket shelves." This was confirmed by the U.K. Food Standards Agency in August.

    Thus, European food producers and consumers have been voting with their feet—and their stomachs.

    Given this experience and the assurances of safety from Europe’s own food safety regulators, among others, what could be the reason for the political opposition to foods from cloned animals?

    One possible explanation is trade considerations: Because most animal cloning is likely to be done in North America, Europeans would like to erect nontariff trade (that is, regulatory) barriers to it.

    But there is another explanation for Europeans’ gastronomic paranoia. From the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, Europe suffered a succession of epidemics caused by contamination of rye with ergot, a poisonous mold that produces the potent toxin ergotamine, the consumption of which induces hallucinations, bizarre behavior, and violent muscle twitching.

    These symptoms gave rise at various times to the belief that victims were possessed by evil spirits. Witch-hunting and persecution were commonplace—and the New World was not immune. One leading explanation for the notorious 1691–1692 Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials relates to ergot contamination.

    Three young girls suffered violent convulsions, incomprehensible speech, trance-like states, odd skin sensations, and delirious visions in which, supposedly, they saw the mark of the devil on certain women in the village. The girls lived in a swampy meadow area around Salem, rye was a major staple of their diet, and records indicate that the rye harvest was complicated by rainy and humid conditions, exactly the situation in which ergot would thrive.

    Worried villagers feared the girls were under a spell cast by demons, and the girls eventually named three women as witches. The subsequent panic led to the execution of as many as 20 innocent people. The girls’ symptoms are typical of ergot poisoning, and when the supply of infected grain ran out, the delusions and persecution likewise disappeared.

    So dangerous food has, historically, been a realistic fear. But while medieval Europeans thought their rye was perfectly safe and blamed evil spirits for their maladies, today’s Continentals have cloned food that actually is perfectly safe, but in too many quarters is still treated as a kind of witchcraft. Maybe the problem is neither protectionism nor evil spirits, but a degree of ignorance that is inexplicable in the 21st century, and is depriving European consumers of tastier, more nutritious, and cheaper food.


Readers' Comments

Posted 12/28/2010 by Andrey

Commentary: Henry Miller 12-19-10 Henry Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institute, is a frequent contributor to GEN. He recently writes that the push by the European Union Parliament to ban the use of cloned animal food products is due to paranoia among Europeans, stemming from memories of widespread contamination of grain products during the 19th century. He makes much of the notion that ergot poisoning caused the bizarre behavior attributed to a group of young women in Salem, Massachusetts in 1691-92, which resulted in the Salem witch trials and the execution of some 20 or so of the accused. The hypothesis that ergot fungal poisoning was responsible for the descent into madness and the persecution of innocent members of their community by the Salem elders is an old one, and was conceived by Linda Caporael who published an article based on this idea in 1976 (Science:At the time the article received a lot of attention, but was never more than an interesting notion, and in three and a half decades since has not been buttressed by supporting data. Indeed, Caporael developed an explanation that was based solely on correlations, and there was never any causation established by her or other researchers. As such, it represents an “after dinner over a glass of brandy science”, fun to blather over, but not anything to be taken seriously. But what is a more crucial problem with Henry’s article is his statement that the European Parliament is consumed by “a degree of ignorance inexplicable in the 21st century.” Now it may very well be the case that EU parliamentarians are overwhelmed by fear and ignorance, but Henry offers no evidence linking the EU policies to misplaced terrors about food products going back hundreds of years.  In fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. To begin with, why aren’t Americans consumed by the same unreasoned horrors of cloned animals? Certainly in the 19th century Americans had no more reason to trust what they packed into their stomachs than did our continental cousins. If there is an ancestral memory linking historical food contamination to present day genetically engineered foods, then Americans should be equally gullible. Is it because we are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable concerning advances in agricultural technology? Do Americans have their heads buried in biotech journals, avidly following each new breakthrough? Do our countrymen and ladies religiously watch Nova and other TV expositions of scientific triumphs? Based on the TV viewing habits of the American public, I would greet such claims of wisdom on the part of the American electorate with skepticism.     But Henry’s argument is a non sequitur; the European concerns are with cloned ANIMAL products and have nothing to do with ergot-contaminated grain in the 19th or any other century. However, there is grave concern in Europe over all forms of high tech agricultural biotechnology, from plants to animals. I think there are much clearer explanations, grounded in realistic fears that European farmers may have concerning their economic survival.  Farming in Europe tends to be based on smaller, more labor intensive operations involving high quality products, often organically produced and closely monitored. Typical products are wine grapes and quality vegetables. Animal products include pricey cheeses from France, Switzerland and other EU countries, all highly subsidized.  Much of Europe is diced apart by rivers, hills, mountains and political borders. This fragmented geography does not lend itself to mass production of wheat, sorgum and maize such as is carried out in the American grain belt states and in Eastern Washington.  Furthermore, European farms in countries such as Italy have been subdivided over and over again as they were passed through generations, so a farm in Europe will tend to be smaller than its American counterpart. Given this distribution of land and resources, it is not surprising that European farmers are dubious regarding their ability to compete with agribusiness operations, who they believe would have much greater access to high tech farming technology and economies of scale. There is another major concern for EU farmers, and that is the fact that most of agricultural biotechnology comes from Monsanto and other giant corporations based in the United States. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to imagine that the costs of the technology and the loss of control would terrorize farmers, both big and small within the European Union. Henry concocts an elaborate story using amateur science to support an hypothesis that is based on fear of plants and has nothing to do livestock cloning. But the real fear, irrational or not, is based on economic uncertainties on the part of farmers in the EU, and there can be no doubt that they made their views known to the EU parliamentarians. We may not agree that there are significant risks from high tech ag bio, but it is important to recognize that the beliefs of European are not based on abject stupidity. I don’t imagine that Henry and I agree on much of anything, but certainly we would both agree that it would be good for agriculture, world hunger and the American biotechnology industry if Europeans were more receptive to high tech agriculture. I don’t think labeling them as a bunch of dumb bozos is the best way to get them on our side in this debate.   
 

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