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The Scientist Down on the Farm

Differing views about nature have a way of turning into pitched, winner-take-all battles in which each side wonders about the sanity of the other. The Food and Drug Administration’s proposed policy to allow the sale of food produced from cloned livestock is a recent case in point.

Last fall, when the FDA first hinted at its decision, an assortment of consumer, animal rights, and environmental groups petitioned the FDA to consider those foods “animal drugs,” and they asked the FDA to impose a mandatory moratorium on food from cloned livestock until each product has completed the new animal drug review process. The Center for Food Safety, which led the petition, declared that the FDA’s proposal to permit foods from cloned livestock “flies in the face of widespread scientific concern about the risks of food from clones, and ignores the animal cruelty and troubling ethical concerns that the cloning process brings.” It promoted its position with a “Not Milk?” advertising campaign featuring a boy with a phosphorescent green milk mustache.

Industry, in contrast, wants all barriers removed – no moratorium, no “animal drug” review process, and also no labels on those foods to cue consumers that cloning was part of the food’s manufacture. Cloning would be invisible to consumers.

Both positions are unreasonable. For starters, there is no significant concern among scientists about the safety of food produced from clones. In fact, the scientific consensus is that the food is safe. Although clones have subtle genetic differences from the animals they are cloned from, the food produced from them is chemically indistinguishable from milk and meat produced from ordinary livestock. Nor is there anything inherently cruel to animals about cloning them, although it is true that pregnancies involving fetuses created through cloning have a higher rate of complications.

Safety and quality are not the key issues here, however. What’s really at stake are what CFS calls the “ethical concerns.”

Foods are much more than packages of nutrients. People decide what they’re going to eat not only by weighing health and safety information, and not even only by giving in to their cravings, but also partly because of other kinds of commitments and interests. Food can be connected with our sense of who a person is and what he or she cares about –aesthetic standards, cultural and ethnic identity, ethical commitments, even religious worldview.

When food acquires meaning of this sort, what people are thinking about it is not merely what the food is – and certainly not what its chemical composition is – but where it comes from and how it was produced. A growing number of consumers make a point of finding food that is free-range, cage-free, “whole,” “slow,” minimally processed, produced locally, or consistent with their culture’s traditions concerning the source, quality, variety, and preparation of food.

Avoiding food from cloned animals is important to many people for similarly non-scientific but deeply felt reasons. Polls have reliably shown that people have misgivings about eating food produced from cloned livestock even when they are assured that it is safe. Two-thirds of respondents to a poll conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan research and education project, said they were “uncomfortable” with cloning, and those who said they were uncomfortable most commonly cited “religious and ethical concerns.” Concerns about safety were second.

One common way of putting the discomfort about cloning is in terms of its “naturalness.” Animal cloning is a noticeable change in the kind and degree of human control over animals – enough at least to make the concept of “animal husbandry” seem in need of updating – and is part of a broader change in how people feel they are related to the world around them and, through medical uses of these biotechnologies, to their own bodies. A few years back, Prince Charles put the concern very bluntly when he wrote that emerging biotechnologies like cloning have “brought us to a crossroads of fundamental importance. Are we going to allow the industrialisation of Life itself?”

So what should we do about concerns like these? It doesn’t seem appropriate to adopt a policy that forces everybody to live by them. Although some people may feel them very deeply, surely many others do not. In some sense, concerns like these go under the heading of religious commitment: they are about the meaning and status of life, and they are not matters on which we expect wide agreement. Given this, the FDA has been right to refuse to ban foods from cloned livestock. Ultimately, this is the problem with the petition to the FDA – it’s not just that the scientific claims are off base, but that the underlying concerns about the naturalness of cloning don’t provide a general reason to forbid it.

By the same token, though, the food policy should not force everybody to accept foods from cloned animals. The best policy would let people honor these commitments without imposing them on others. This means some form of labeling, allowing consumers to avoid food from cloned animals—or to pay no attention, or to actively seek it out. Ultimately this is where the industry position goes wrong: the underlying concerns about the naturalness of cloning also cannot be flatly dismissed.

Perhaps the labeling needed here could be voluntary and call attention only to food that does not involve cloning. (Ben & Jerry’s has said it will try to develop such labels.) The argument that the FDA offers against mandatory labels is that there’s no good “science-based” reason to require them, since after all the food is chemically indistinguishable. But if the concern about food from cloned livestock is understood as a concern about where food comes from, then we should recall that the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act already requires labels that indicate the name and location of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor – information that tells consumers where a food comes from but not necessarily anything at all about its chemical composition. If enough people care enough about not eating food from cloned animals, perhaps mandatory labels would be appropriate.

– Gregory E. Kaebnick


Readers respond

Gregory Kaebnick’s well-written essay ending with a call for mandatory cloning labeling on cloned foods (presumably the argument holds for cloned vegetables as well, though that is not explicitly addressed) rests on the very dubious ethical plank that it should be done if “enough” people “feel deeply” about it. Without addressing whether those deep feelings can be disentangled from ignorance and the fear that ignorance always engenders, “deep feelings” cannot stand as the basis for such labeling. There, alas, remain in the country deep seated and deep feelings of racial discrimination. I doubt whether on that basis the author would be calling for “Handled by Afro-American” stamp on food if “enough” felt it should be done. Ethics is not up for a vote, especially one based on ignorance.

– Joshua Boger, Ph.D.
(The author is CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, on the board of directors of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and on the board of directors of The Hastings Center.)


First off: I hoped to leave it an open question whether voluntary or mandatory labeling was the better course, though I did want to suggest that a case for mandatory labeling could be made.

That aside, Joshua Boger’s response raises all sorts of important issues. The role of the emotions in morality is extremely interesting and difficult. I would want to say that both intellect and feeling are vital. Moral judgments depend on reflection and criticism about what matters to us most deeply, and under what I see as the most compelling account of morality, that means they cannot depend on intellect alone.

The question about whether to label cloned foods is a question about whether and how public policy should be influenced by an ethical position that many people have and many others lack, which is a question of political philosophy more than of moral philosophy. Voting – by citizens, by legislators, by juries, by judges – often does decide ethical questions when they get carried into the realm of politics. A label that said “handled by Afro-Americans” would nonetheless be objectionable even if it reflected the views of a large majority of the population, but that kind of label is different from the kind of label I was considering: it would reflect a discriminatory attitude toward African-Americans, which would violate their fundamental civil rights to be treated as equals in the political sphere. No category of citizens would be called out and denied equal political standing if we labeled cloned foods. Thus the racist label would run afoul of other moral commitments in a way cloned foods labeling wouldn’t. (In the political sphere, if citizens and legislators voted for the discriminatory label, we might turn to the courts and ask for judges’ votes, hoping that the first vote would be overturned by another vote on these underlying issues of civil rights.) This comparison, and the contrast that emerges, points to intellect’s role in morality.

The real fightin’ words are in the characterization of the objection to cloned foods as based on ignorance. It is (the evidence before us suggests), if the objection is that cloned foods are unsafe. If the objection is only that cloning animals represents a level of control over nature that Consumer Joe would rather not endorse, I don’t see where Consumer Joe is ignorant.

– Greg Kaebnick

Published on: February 5, 2007
Published in: Animal Research Ethics, Emerging Biotechnology, Health Care Reform & Policy, Science and Society

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