Never ones to shy away from a good debate, health and wellness advocates are already locking horns with biotechnologists over the ethics of cloning, even though the Food and Drug Administration has given only preliminary approval to foods derived from cloned animals.
Cloning companies such as ViaGen and Cyagra claim they don't see what the fuss is about, describing their processes as a natural evolution of animal husbandry, which already uses techniques such as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization to breed animals that produce perfectly marbled cuts of meat or more milk. New cloning techniques promise consistently healthier, tastier products, they claim.
There are also implications for animal welfare. Researchers have found, for example, that congenitally blind hens are far more comfortable in modern poultry production facilities than hens that can see. The findings give rise to the question of whether it might be more humane simply to breed blind hens. Or, what about an engineered and cloned animal with no brain or nervous system that just produces meat and eggs?
These deliberately ghoulish scenarios were raised by Michigan State University ethics professor Paul Thompson at a 2005 symposium on genetic engineering and cloning hosted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The thought of biotech taken to the extreme makes many people squeamish, he said, because “a purely instrumental view of life is really contrary to our view of what a virtuous person would do. Virtuous people have some sense of awe about the process of life.”
Of course, no one is currently working to develop or clone a “loaf animal.” And cloning is such an expensive process that only the offspring of clones, rather than the animals themselves, will end up at processing plants in the foreseeable future.
But opponents of these technologies are understandably concerned that a slippery slope may lie ahead, and they find it alarming that the charge to explore, unlock and even patent the fundamental mysteries of life is being led by companies with goals no loftier than better-tasting cheeseburgers or house pets that live in perpetuity.
Opposition isn't limited to animal rights or food activism groups, either. In a recent consumer survey by the Pew Initiative, 70% and 76% of frequent and somewhat frequent church attendees, respectively, said they were uncomfortable with the concept of animal cloning.
“Religious concerns were frequently cited,” said Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. “Many [respondents] said that people were playing God.”