Cloning of animals vs. cloning of fruit

This is something I have been mulling around a bit since the news item back in December that the US Food and Drug Administration issued a “draft risk assessment” that is a likely step towards letting cloned animals into the nation’s meat and milk supply. (Reports I read said that some cloned animals had already been slaughtered for market, but relatively few.)

My reaction to the whole idea is negative. But why? (I mean other than that I am an organic farmer and my politics lean green, and so in the area of agronomic policy I tend to be pretty conservative.) This is not GMO (which I have a pretty strongly negative view of). This is perpetuating genetically identical copies of a parent. Just like I do every time I graft a known fruit variety into a rootstock (or plant a commercially purchased tree that is grafted or otherwise asexually propagated).

At one of my favorite fruit/food/farm blogs (long linked on my sidebar), life begins at 30, one of the reasons given for why cloning of animals for food is a “bad idea” is that it “encourages monoculture.”

But does it? Back to fruit, it is true that if all fruits were grown from seed, every tree (and its fruit) would be unique. So, if every apple tree, for example, were from seed, we would have a lot more genetic variety. On the other hand, we have an amazing degree of genetic diversity because so many good seedlings have been found over the years and grafted as a way to preserve them and pass them on. Thus, I have numerous apple varieties in my collection, just as I have numerous apricots, and so on.

But I suppose this really gets to the crux of the matter. Although the practice is less widespread for fruits other than apples (the reason I used them as my example), stores sell apples as ‘Jonathan’ or ‘Gala’ or ‘Fuji’ so that we know what we are getting. And so that there is more, not less, genetic variety among what we can buy.

With cattle and pigs and such, I don’t suppose we are going to get labeled varieties like we get with apples. In fact, at least until some certifying organization comes along for consumers who want to know their meat and other animal products aren’t from clones, we are not likely to get any labeling at all.

Maybe the difference comes down to there being greater natural variation in the flavor (and other qualities of interest to humans) among the offspring of any given male and female persimmon blossom than in the offspring of any given bull and cow. (Why would that be?)

I wonder if cloned animals will be allowed under organic labeling? Again, using the fruit analogy, why not? However, I suspect there will be a lot of resistance from the organic producers, retailers, and consumers. And will such animals be considered kosher? The certifiers and those who care about certified products will be very much engaged in this process.

In the meantime, I certainly will be seeking to support producers–especially smaller and local ones–who do not use cloned animals.

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UPDATE: Interesting perspectives from The Evil Fruit Lord (in the comments) and at Organic Shmorganic.

0 thoughts on “Cloning of animals vs. cloning of fruit

  1. I don’t have a problem with cloned animals at all, though I somehow doubt that they’re going to be economical for anything other than research purposes for a very long time.

    I really think that dangers to diversity are pretty minimal. For one thing, there are already a zillion breeds of domestic animals, because there are a zillion niches for them to fill. Multiplying the single best Holstein in the world won’t replace all the beef cattle, for example.

    Second, within these breeds, I suspect that the effect of selection has been not for hybrid vigor, but towards uniformity, achieved not by maximizing heterosis but by elimination of deleterious genes. Thus within a breed the animals become more like each other. Selecting for heterosis yet maintaining uniformity is very difficult to do without cloning. If you’ve got something like animals that you want uniform in phenotype, you wind up having to have them pretty uniform in genotype, I’d bet. So cloning of even the very best of each breed gains you only so much, and comes at a considerably larger cost than just letting the animals reproduce normally.

    (I know absolutely nothing about breeding animals, incidentally–I’m just extrapolating from my knowledge of plants, so I may be completely full of nonsense here)

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