Monday, February 11, 2008

The clone in the dish

The clone in the dish

Guglielmo Ragozzino

During april 2007, the European Committee asked to European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, an opinion about the possibility to put on the market milk and meat coming from cloned animals, for example pigs and cows. The answer - a substancial go-ahead - came in these days, and the Coldiretti, the important Italian union of agriculturists, spreaded it to a public of non-specialists, clarifying their contrariety and concern.
In few words, EFSA just ensured that the nutritional qualities are not different from the products coming from animals grown in traditional way. It takes time anyway to make a public consultation, within February 25, in order to give a definitive answer in may. At this point the Committee will put together this opinion with the one by European Group on Ethics, and will decide. Also Coldiretti made an own practical (and not scientific) consultation, online; the result was that 55% of the answers is an absolute NO, 36% asked atleast the labelling of the foodstuff that shows the cloned origin; while the 8% is in favor and 1% didn't give any answer.
It remains the suspicion that EFSA cannot free itself from the charme of American FDA (Food and Drug Administration), that already pushes toward the liberalization of the cloned animals.
The reasons that bring also a part of Eurpoean agricultural industry to follow the path to cloning is the convinction to obtain in this way deformed animals, dedicated to the production of bigger hams, more milk, etc. But this does not consider atleast three bad things.
The first is the elimination of any biodiversity. This last thing is not a fixation of tropical ecology, but it is the attempt to have, also to our climates, less riceptive to sicknesses organisms.
The discendants of Dolly sheep won't ever be able to free themselves from the sickness present in the ancestor's (if that's the way one say) organism. From the absence of biodiversity descends an inferior immune defense, so the oxes are often exposed to epidemics. Lastly, often genetics give opposite result than those hoped by who uses it in order to "improve the races"; and it is cause of a producteive life really short, so that even a part of American agriculture moves countertendencial steps and confirms again the utility to cross animals with different characteristics in order to obtain more healthy anymals, and after all more meat and milk. The experts of the farms that we asked to, told as that instead of throwing money on the cloning science, it would be better to invest on the structures for animals. In times of climatic changes, a too strong genetic science would be a further disadvantage. Even more if the genetics is connected to cruel breeding systems, in crazy places. The cows have already a halved life, instead of 7 to 8 lactations they had in the past nowadays they have 3 or 4. The cloned oxes would have together all those defects.

from Il Manifesto on January 12th, 2008 [free translation by me - here the original]

There is a lot of noise, in these days, about the news and marketing, for food, in America, of meat and milk coming from cloned oxes and pigs.
Even if it is a different procedure, this subject has several sides in common with the one of genetically modified organisms. In the case of cloning, infact, there is no genetical artificial modification. There is no scientist that goes to artificially change the sequnce of the DNA, and so the phisical (and organoleptic) characteristics of the produced organisms are the same of the producer organisms. Instead, it is substituted the reproductive mechanism that generated the new organism, obviously with the goal to obtain a better quality from the commercial point of view. The idea is: we select a cow (or pig) commercially perfect and then we replicate it always identical to itself, and so the same commercially perfect. The genetic wealth of the result organism is infact identical to the source organism.
In the case of GMO, instead, the DNA sequence is modified, substituting some genes with other taken from DNA chains of other completely different organisms. The goal is somehow different than the case of clonation, because in this case they tend to produce new organisms, that contain characteristics that couldn't be generated in a natural way. For example i remember the demonstration, some years agon, of a flower in which genetic sequence had been inserted the gene of bioluminescence, taken from the DNA of a crustacean. The new organism was a flower which petals made own light night time. In this case the idea was: we create an organism that contains all the characteristics we are interested to, giving up those useless characteristics. Such organisms have the commercial advantage to be able to create new spaces of market to fill of business. In the particular case of the bioluminescent flower they thought to grow it next to the highways, with obvious advantages from the point of view of driving safety (the idea is not bad, even if i have to say that, thinking just few minutes about, i can find entire epical poems of alternative solution with the same effect much cheaper - for example the use of those lamps that accumulate solar energy on daylight time and give back a discrete light night time).

Even avoiding moral implication tied to the human intervent in the creation process of a new life, there are still some questions about the marketing of cloned or GM animals (or vegetables).

The first questions that filled up the European media after the news of commercialization in America of clone products are the ones that affect closest the consumers, firstly careful to health and quality of the product. The cloned meat is healthy? Is it good?
As far as i know there is no reason to doubt that the meat (or milk) of a cloned animal have different properties from the meat of the animal source of the clonation. That meat (milk) has the same characteristics, and so if the one is good, the other is good too. If the one is healty, the other is healty too.
For the GMO it is different, because the characteristics of the produced organisms not only are different from the ones of the organisms they started from, but they are different also in an umpredictable way, being that the genetic modification can (and usually it is so) create organisms that have never been produced, and won't ever be produced, in a natural way. A question is, for example, if, and in which way, an allergic to strawberries person could eat a chicken which DNA is mixed with strawberry genes. The answer to this question depends on determining the reaction of the antibodies of that person to the cells of the strawberry chicken. Since there is no medical experience on this kind of cells, the reaction cannot be predicted.
For what concerns the frlavor, it is obvious that the reason to use GMO technology for food is to produce organisms that taste differently from the ones they use to apply the technology.

Evaluating the problem from another point of view, another open question is the ecology one, well focused by the quoted article. The world, with its food chains is based on biodiversity, or right on the fact that the reproductive crossbreed of two individuals generates an organism partially different from both. The surviving differences are the more favourable ones in terms of environmental adaptation, since the mutant individuals have more probabilities to survive, and so to breed, perpetrating the mutation to the next generations. This mechanism extended the neck of the girafs so that they could feed on the higher leaves of the trees, it transformed to flippers the limbs of the cetaceans, it divided the animals in herbivores that feed on vegetables, and carnivores, that feed on herbivores. But it also divided the living beings in animals that feed on vegetables and vegetables that feed on the rests of the animals.
If we discovered the commercially perfect ox (or pig), it will end up that agriculture will produce always that same ox (or pig), entire farms full with copies of one only organism always and everywhere equal to itself, reproducing characteristics always equal, and not even necessarily the best ones under the point of view of environmental adaptation, but only under the commercial point of vies. Those organisms will steal "existency shares" to all the other oxes (pigs), that will day by day disappear from the animal world, compromising all the alimentary chains in which they are involved.
Maybe this process does not necessarily compromise the life on the earth, for sure it will contribute in the simplification of the genetic patrimony. Maybe we don't need animals that produce inferior in quality and more expensive meat or milk, but for sure the world needs them, otherwise natural evolution would have already thought itself to make "ethnic cleansing". Biodiversity is a preservation mechanism of the species and of life in general. If an individual is sensitive to a virus, for example, it can be that another similar individual of the same species wouldn't be. Genetic natural mutations of the virus will tend to attack organisms with a different genetic patrimony. The organisms of the attacked species will tend to generate natural mutations resistant to that virus. If the genetic patrimony of a set of animals is always invariant and identical to itself, a virus able to kill one individual would be able to kill all the individuals of the set. Clonation is so the antithesis of the natural evolution, on which is based how the world works.
About what it concerns to GMO, instead, the matter is slightly different. If the natural evolution tends to select the genetic characteristics of a species so that the individuals would become more competitive than the competitors, the genetic artificial modification tends to select the species so that the individual would be more competitive only from a commercial point of view, evalued on the pockets of who owns the copyright. These new organisms, even if potencially less strong than the natural organisms, they would take over in the same environment, and so also the natural ones, with time, will adapt to new entries' presence. If we will produce a variety of GM corn resistant to 90% of a certain type of parasite, and if we cultivate only that variety, it will happen that 90% of the parasites would die, leaving the remaining 10% free to riproduce. The only result we would obtain is to make those parasites stronger (for natural selection). If instead the variety of corn released would resist to the totality of the parasites, those parasites would estinguish, or atleast they would parcially disappear, compromising the food chains they belong to.

There is, then, a social consequence. Obviously who owns the technology for production of GMO and clones, would apply it for money, with disadvantages for those ones that apply traditional technologies for animal breeding and vegetable cultivation. The control on this "copyright" can be obtaining producing sterile clones or GMO's. If for example a farmer grows sterile GM corn, he won't be able to use part of the grains of the harvested corn to sow the fields for the next year, but he will have to buy them again from the same producer of GM corn. This would break into fragments those social balances coming from subsistence economies of poor countries. Moreover the traditional cultivation, nowadays, benefit from the pollinator bugs that, not respecting the borders of the cultivated fields, bring the pollen from a cultivation to another. If a farmer uses GM seeds, his sterile vegetables won't give good pollen for fertilizing the vegetables of the neighbor farmers, who will see damaged their harvest too.

Lastly there is a cultural aspect of the problem. A GM chicken tasting of strawberry is good or not? The answer can be different belonging to who answer, but i think that it makes sense the interpretation of the taste under a cultural point of view. Infact, how does one eat the strawberry chicken? In a fruit salad or roasted with french fries? Being that there is no story of tradition tied to strawberry chicken, there does not exist either a popular recipe that produce a popular plate that allows us to catalog the flavor upon known values. In other words the flavor of a food is a cultural fact, and so it's not possible to decide if the strawberry chicken have an objective gastronomical value negative or positive. One can only make some experiments and evaluate the answer of the consumer, but the attempt itself distorts the gastronomical tradition, made not only of good ingredients, but also of History. I think that a traditional steaming roast chicken, with french fries will always be better, because in that way my mother used to cook it, and before her mother, going back to prehistory. Or, also, i like a bowl of good fresh strawberries with sugar and lemon. The much good it can be, i would leave the strawberry chicken at McDonalds, where the problem is not to make good food, but to sell it good.
A last thing i would add is that the gastronomic variety of a tradition is given to the match of various available ingredients. If we eliminate from the market the "minor" ones, which are the ones worse from the commercial point of view, we would have to give up the possibility to cook the almost totality of the popular recipes. Variety of quality in the foods available on the market gives a variety of flavors in which one measure a gastronomical tradition. Having few goods, even if perfect ones, in the stores, means loosing variety in cookings.


tychecat said...

Hi Dario,
A college fraternity brother of mine used to be involved in agricultural cloning and GMO development, later in writing about it, later still, editing an agricultural magazine covering these developments. I have more or less kept up with him via the net.
As you know, virtually all that polenta you eat is made from GM corn and all those Apples are clones. This newest animal cloning will probably have much less practical use unless there is a specific reason cloning a specific animal (Racehorse?) is desirable. GMO with animals has already had more practical use and will probably continue despite objections from various groups.
Without this Green Revolution, the world will probably have trouble feeding itself. The lack of biodiversity caused by this is troubling, but at least the problem is recognized.
Personally, I am bothered by the idea that living organisms (including people!) can be patented or copyrighted.

rowena said...

The reason for cloning is just another foot in the door for mad scientists intent on playing God. What's the reason for cloning? To rule out disease? Defects? Extend lifespan? Supersize breeding stock? Feed the world? I think not, as no big money-backed corporation does anything for anybody for FREE. Should cloning become a force to be seriously reckoned with, it only means that we as a nation do not have a voice in the matter. And the giants like McDonalds and All-you-can-eat steakhouses have trumped yet again.

There is no way to prevent cloning but it should be labeled as such. We should at least have the right to choose. Alternatively, we could simply bow out from eating meat.

dario said...

Yes, i forgot to mention in my big post, but i know that the declared goal to feed the third word (and in general humanity) is one of the main subject for supporters of GM technology.
Really, i don't see how can one seriously believe that. We produce some proteins from some amino-acids and... pooof!... now we got more food from the world to feed the world. And where do we take those amino-acids?
Yes, if we give to a traditional farmer some GM corn to grow, he will have a better production. But, globally, do you really think the amount of proteins, or in other words, the amount of amino-acids in the world increased? The real thing is that the GM corn is more resistant than the normal one within the same food chain, so there will be more corn, but less of who takes advantage in the process of ruining the traditional corn, in example bugs. Who cares of those damn bugs? Those birdies that feed theirselves and their babies with those bugs in that sadic way. Less bugs means less birds. Less birds means less guano, less guano means less corn. Result? we have less corn than the increased amount of corn we have thanks to GM technology. So, the amount of corn is the same but the amount of bugs, birds and guano is decreased. Who makes money out of this ruin? The companies that produce GM corn!
Hey, Dick, those GM people found a way to stop the recession! The State should print out more money. Double money printed means double salary for me, and i am happy! Why not?

By the way, i don't believe that the food produced in the world wouldn't be enough to feed all the humans. It is enough. More than enough, because the amount of food that we, rich people, eat, is much more than the amount we really need. But, even more, because a big share of the agricultural fields belong to the third word, where they don't have technology to best optimize the growth of the traditional vegetables and animals.
But, i believe, the main problem is cronical and cannot be solved any way, other than changing in the world the economical global rules.
We eat too much? We could think to equally share our food with the third world. I don't think we are in favor of this, but let's suppose we are so good that everybody of us spontaneously choose to share his food with poor people. Well, those poor people will become more rich. And so, as it happens wherever in the world, they will try to better their life going in the towns, and abandoning agriculture. They will reproduce with a higher rate, and they will buy medicines to enlarge their expectation of life. The number of humans in the world will grow even bigger, and the food won't be enough anyway.
And note that this would happen even if we find a way (with some other more serious technology than GM) to produce more food. More food, means more people, more people means more need of food.
You know what is the real problem of the growth of humanity? The lack of natural selection. Naturally the number of lions in the sawana is regulated by the amount of food. If there is too many lions, they will eat too many gazelles, so there will be less gazelles, not enough to feed those lions, so those lions will die of hunger, so their number will decrease, so they won't eat so many gazelles, so the number of gazelles will increase, so the number of lions will grow because they will have more food available..... this, with the time, will balance to an equilibrate number of lions and gazelles.
For humans it doesn't work like that, because there is nobody (apart humans theirselves) that will controlo the number of humans like lions do with gazelles, and there is not, till now, a limit on territorial food, meaning with it that we can find food some other place, as if african lions could eat australian kangaroos.

tychecat said...

Dario, I'm going to sic my grand-niece on you. She just graduated from college in this subject (Human Geography and Agricultural Problems) and was intending to pursue this further in Grad School, but just dropped out so she and her boyfriend could bicycle around the world. I'll see if I can get her to stop in Italy and lecture you on the evils of world hunger - God knows, she has lectured us enough.

She is passionate in her conviction that you are dead wrong about there being enough food or the world population. She is convinced this enormous problem is because us greedy Westerners (including you greedy Europeans) not only take more than our share, but deliberately deprive the Third World from their raising their own fair share because we profit from agribusiness.
Her geographic area of expertise is Latin America and She and her boyfriend are starting their world bike trip by aiming to pedal to Patagonia, so it may be a few years before she gets to Europe ;-)

dario said...

wooh! how cool is that? bicicling in Patagonia?
I am planning to go to patagonia too, but i was thinking to a more lazy thing like flying over there and moving by public transportation...

Yes, i would love the idea to know her and her boyfriend.... the only thing is that i am not sure that we could really discuss about those subject, being that we have the same opinion ;-)

Anyway, is she online? Does she have a mail address?

tychecat said...

Public transportation in Patagonia?- well I suppose.
I think they have in mind going as far south as they can - but so far they haven't gotten to Texas yet.
The boyfriend is a single-minded bicycling nut - he has already pedaled from Boston to Seattle - but I don't think she quite shares his enthusiasm for biking - she is more interested in the socioeconomic aspects. We are taking bets on how long the relationship will last. As he doesn't speak Spanish, he will probably become harder and harder to live with and when she drops out, he will be in big trouble.
They both have blogs but neither has anything up yet, the grand trip started about a week ago.
They have to pedal through West Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas before they even get out of the U.S.

dario said...

Indeed a fascinating project, although i find it impossible. I met a couple of bicyclists from canada in Rome last year and i couldn't really believe that they traveled by bike from Como to Naples and back to Rome... Nothing compared to the trip your niece and her boyfriend are planning to do. Yes, to go off the USA they have a long distance. But still nothing. To go down to the Tierra del Fuego they have to pedal ten times that distance. And then i bet they would like to go back uh?

Ahahah.... YOU!
We look like the grandpas of the Muppet Show, just sitting there and watching the show, and telling gossips....

tychecat said...

I actually know someone who did bicycle around the world -back in the 1970's. He also cycled across the U.S. a couple of times.
I think the idea of cycling the length of South America was because they wanted to get started and it was too cold to pedal to Oregon or Vermont where they supposedly had their choice of jobs. They plan to work their way around the world.
When I was a kid (18-19) back in the '50s, I did work my way around the world - as a merchant seaman. Ahhh, those were the days.

dario said...

Interesting discussion about GM at Socrates Cafe's over here.