In 2001, Professor Ian Wilmut, the scientist who created Dolly the Sheep, sparked an ethical row when he described the cloning of farm animals for food as “a natural progression” and the “sensible thing to do”. In the context of global food shortages, cloned meat could be a “huge potential benefit to mankind,” he said. But nine years on, and on the back of revelations that cloned meat has inadvertently entered the British food chain for the first time, Wilmut’s prophesised benefits are yet to materialize. According to UN estimates, over a billion people are now “undernourished,” and this is a figure that continues to rise.
Still, as Wilmut’s prediction dissolves into history, in agricultural circles support continues to swell in favour of cloned animals. Last week, an anonymous British farmer told the New York Times he was “using milk from a cow bred from a clone as part of his daily production,” and the president of the Scottish National Farmers Union described stringent European cloning rules as “ridiculous.” Cloning is “widespread elsewhere in the world,” he said. “If you go to the US or Canada you will almost certainly be consuming meat and dairy products from cloned animals at every turn.”
Under EU legislation on “Novel Foods,” meat or dairy from cloned animals “cannot be put on the market without a safety assessment and a specific authorizing legal act.” But semen from millions of Bulls is imported into the EU every year – and most of it from America and Canada, where cloning is now widespread. As one EU official told the Telegraph: “It is more than probable [that among the imported semen] are doses from cloned animals. If just one per cent or 0.1 per cent is from cloned animals then there are 100,000s or 1,000s of first generation offspring.”
Loopholes in labelling laws mean that the offspring of cloned animals are not technically considered “genetically modified” under EU legislation. As such, produce derived from these animals in Europe – meats, cheeses, chocolates – slips under the radar. And some of it likely ends up in British supermarkets, even although the official stance of the Food Standards Agency is that food derived from the offspring of cloned animals still requires a special novel foods licence to be sold in the UK.
Like Professor Wilmut said in 2001, this is a “natural progression.” Not of nature itself, obviously, but of agribusiness. Because like any other capitalist enterprise, profit and efficiency, not ethics and egalitarianism, are the underlying principles of animal farming. An animal to a farmer is like a share to a stockbroker – not much more than a means to an end. Therefore, if a cloned cow can increase “efficiency” by producing larger quantities of milk, and a cloned bull can sire a whole herd of “elite” cattle, to the mind of the farmer, current EU legislation is not but a barrier to profits.
Hence frustrated British farmers have unsurprisingly begun to flout or bend cloning regulations. And as a weird air of science fiction sets in, it becomes clear that in the immediate sense what cloned animals represent is not a grave threat to public health; but rather, something that is potentially much worse. For what we are now entering is a new era of scientific, for-profit nihilism, based on a cruel and ideologically hazardous form of animal eugenics. While there will undoubtedly be rewards (financial, of course), the beneficiaries are unlikely to be the poor, or the hungry, or even the traditional farmers – never mind the animals themselves. In light of repeated warnings about the detrimental effects of animal agriculture, surely we need to be consuming less meat, not finding new ways to consume more. Now that would be a progression; that would be the sensible thing to do.