Living Food: Reckless cloning

Sunday, December 31, 2006


As discomforting as most Americans find the idea, the Food and Drug Administration's tentative approval for allowing the sale of cloned meat and milk makes a certain kind of sense. The plan is a logical extension of an industrialized food system that treats plants, animals and nature with an often-reckless disregard.

For animals, it's a system of routine cruelties: docking pigs' tails, clipping chickens' beaks and taking cattle off grazing land to live their lives standing in manure in so-called confined animal feeding operations. It makes sense only to the corporate forces behind the food system that they should be able to make money and create efficiencies by replacing any form of natural reproduction with $15,000-a-shot cloning attempts.

We'd like to think Americans will reject having their country become the first to allow cloned products. A poll for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found 64 percent of consumers uncomfortable with animal cloning. There already is talk of companies marketing "clone-free" meat. But we already put up with so much that is deeply unnatural in our food system that the Bush administration's bet on shoving cloned foods on the public may be well calculated.

In one of 2006's most brilliant books, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Michael Pollan traced the industrialization of the food system in ways that shock even readers with fairly sophisticated consumer-level knowledge of health and nutrition. Life on a farm, except in the most consciously nature-oriented operations, is nothing like in storybooks. Single-crop fields stretch across the heartland. E.coli outbreaks spring from raising beef in the stinking cities of confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. Pigs' tails must be docked (with pliers, no anesthetic) because the intelligent animals, prematurely weaned at 10 days rather than the normal 13 weeks to be placed in confinement, try to exercise their instincts by sucking and chewing on one another's tails.

"A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring," Pollan writes. " 'Learned helplessness' is the psychological term and it's not uncommon in the CAFOs, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of earth or straw or sunshine, crowded together beneath a metal roof standing on metal slats suspended over a septic tank."

After docking, the remaining stub is so hypersensitive even the most depressed pig will fight back, preventing infection from chewing. That avoids the cost of treatment and the alternative: "underperforming production units are typically clubbed to death on the spot."

The book's odd title relates to the choices about safe foods when you can eat just about anything. As Pollan explains, natural feelings of disgust seem to help humans avoid such threats as rotten meat.

In saying that it is safe for this country to become the first to allow cloned products, FDA scientists speak of cloned livestock as "virtually indistinguishable" from other animals. If the administration sticks to its plans, consumers will face new dilemmas about their food system, their government's inaction and their own eating choices.