Wednesday, January 16, 2008

C is for Cloning, Cattle, and Catastrophy

So the USDA just approved the use of cloned cattle in meat and dairy production. Don't worry, it still costs too much money to clone a cow and put it on your plate - they're going to be used strictly for breeding purposes (so you're safely one step removed). But in the long run, this means we are all screwed.

See, we've been selectively breeding for many generations now - I mean, that's what animal husbandry is all about! But now that we can just get a sample of some DNA and create exact replicas? Well, that's where you're messing with this wonderful thing called biodiversity. You see, in order for a species to stay alive, it must be diverse. That way, if some kind of infection sweeps through the population, there will be some (hopefully) who have naturally occurring genetic mutations to cope with this. These animals will survive.

But when you reduce that biodiversity, things go bad. A single infectious strain can now impact an entire species. What if the cows who produce the most milk/meat are also the most susceptible to mad cow disease? And when we breed animals for with these limited purposes in mind, that's what will happen. During the Irish potato famine, only 2 types of potatoes were planted, and both were susceptible to blight.

And hey, don't even get me started on what we do with our existing cattle - between antibiotics, growth hormone, and diets of nonstop corn, it's not like we're doing ourselves a favor here anyway.

Did I mention that, following in the footsteps of genetically-modified food and growth hormones, there will be no special labels for this food? Yes, if you labeled it, people wouldn't buy it, but welcome to capitalism. Now I'm going to have to wait for some proactive rancher to get his meat "certified" (by a non-governmental authority, no doubt) that it is grass fed, without growth hormone, without antibiotics, not cloned, etc. It moves the regulatory burden onto the industry itself (which is good for smart consumers), but most unlabeled meat is just going to be cheaper and full of this garbage which is bad for you. Of course, the USDA is very restrictive as to what you can put on your label as to not upset the delicate balance - will they allow you to write "not cloned" on a label? Doubt it.

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