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Europe Must Be Able to Track and Control Clone Products     Print Email
By Corrinne Lepage, MEP, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety

A number of recent articles in the European and American press have highlighted the grave concern in Europe about reports of imports and sales, without licensing or labeling, of meat and milk derived from clones. Whereas approval and labeling is necessary for the sale of the meat of clones, the European Commission has taken a very lax view on milk and meat from the offspring of clones. Several European countries are already importing clone semen and embryos. Switzerland has acknowledged that clone-derived products are sold there (that can be exported to the EU) and the British have discovered in their newspapers that they may be unknowingly eating clone-derived meat and milk. There is currently no system for tracing the origin of these products, informing consumers of the nature of what they are buying or indeed tracking clone offspring as they mix into the gene pool.

This situation exists even as clone-derived products - whether stemming directly from clones or from their offspring - raise significant issues regarding biodiversity and animal welfare. These are issues which are of interest to both public authorities and individual consumers.

I would like to stress that this concern over cloned animals is not merely a French issue. There are many people in other parts of Europe as well as in America who are also worried by these recent developments. The UK's Food Safety Agency, for example, is going to consider how it can place "controls on food produced from non-traditionally bred animals should include the original animal and subsequent generations until such a time as there is sufficient science and evidence to provide assurance of food safety." Similarly, British politicians both left and right have been alarmed by this issue. The Tory MEP Struan Stevenson has noted that there is "no traceability" for many of these imported products, and that there is "no way of knowing if we are importing meat from cloned animals." Linda McAvan, a Labour MEP, believes that a moratorium on clone meat and milk should be implemented until the subject has been debated and regulated.

Health Issues and Biodiversity

Their concerns are well-founded given the moral and health problems that cloning poses. The most important issue is one of public safety. There is simply very little data on the health effects of clone-derived products and essentially no data on its long-term effects.

To clone an organism, unlike what some agro-businessmen argue, is not simply to create a "twin". The cloned embryo and its genetic material are usually damaged in the cloning process. These clones typically develop physical deformities and die, or live with poor health. A report by the Consumers Union of America notes that these health problems could threaten humans by leading to "increased antibiotic use, increased antibiotic resistance and wider dispersal of dangerous pathogens such as E. coli".

In addition, the systematic use of clones to sire offspring would mean a lessening in the biodiversity of our livestock. Genetic diversity is nature's first line of defense against a given disease because it means certain animals in a group may have developed a natural resistance to it. When this diversity is lost, entire strains of animals will be more vulnerable to dying in a single outbreak.

Finally, there are almost no scientific studies on the long-term health effects of consumption of clones or their descendents on humans. In the past, other forms of agroindustrial innovation have led to unforeseen negative consequences on humans and the environment. Mad cow disease, for instance, was caused by the "novel" practice of feeding animals meat and bone meal (dead animals ground up into feed). The repeated use of the Roundup pesticide has led to the growth of Roundup-resistant "superweeds" that now threaten the agriculture production of the United States.

There is simply no telling what will be the long term effects of cloning-derived products and their mixing into the gene pool. Unlike today, however, we should at least be able to control, trace and identify cloned organisms in the European Union and those imported from elsewhere. It would be the height of irresponsibility to close our eyes to these new developments while we remain completely ignorant about the health risks.

Animal Welfare

In addition to reasons of human health, there are legitimate ethical concerns regarding cloning. Many people, for either reasons of faith regarding the sanctity of life or secular concerns about animal welfare, should be able to decide whether they consume clone-derived meat and milk. The overwhelming majority of cloned embryos develops severe health problems and dies.

For instance, Dolly the Sheep - famous as the first cloned example of her species - required almost 300 failed attempts to create, each time leading to an expired embryo. Dolly later developed serious health problems and had to be euthanized at 6 years old because of severe arthritis and lung disease. A typical sheep can expect to live 11 or 12 years. Dolly's brief life may have been due to imperfections in the cloning process.

The image of cloning is skewed because, as noted by Dr. Ryuzo Yanagimachi, a mouse-cloning expert at the University of Hawaii, clones "that survive are the exceptions, not the rule. People do not report negative results." However, Dolly is typical of cloning efforts. Dr. Ian Wilmut, the scientist who created Dolly, said that in general only 1 to 4 percent of cloning efforts in a given species lead to the birth of a live animal. There are serious abnormalities in nearly all embryos. Stillbirths and deaths shortly after birth are not unusual. Indeed, the Consumers Union report also notes that clones suffer from "very high rates of illness, death and deformities". This does not include those species, such as dogs and monkeys, where cloning attempts have failed completely.

A Shrouded Debate

The issue of clone-derived products is especially worrying because of the simultaneous lack of public information and the vast sums of money agrobusiness deploys for its public relations and lobbying efforts. Even the highest governmental authorities appear to know nothing on the extent of clone food. When Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, was recently asked if "cloned cows or their offspring have it into the North American food supply," he said that "I can't say today that I can answer your question in an affirmative or negative way. I don't know." There is total ignorance as to the extent to which these products are already on the market and great uncertainty as to their effects.

That hasn't stopped agrobusiness and their lobbyists however. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (the main cloning/GMO lobbying group) still claims on its website that "Currently, there are no known meat and milk products from animal clones and their offspring on the marketplace."  Pro-cloning groups continue to redouble their efforts in both Europe and North America to ensure that consumers remain unable to make informed decisions about what they eat. Barb Glenn of the B.I.O. has argued with Orwellian wit against the labeling of cloned products: "The bottom line is, we don't want to misinform consumers with some sort of implied message of difference." He added, “There is no difference." The fact is, besides the difference in conception that leads to many dead embryos and young animals, no one knows what differences exist for the humans that consume them.

In the past, agribusiness has not been above deceptive advertising and hollow assurances to mislead customers into buying their products. The firm Monsanto, for example, has been found guilty of deceptive advertising for claims such as that its Roundup herbicide was "biodegradable" and "left the soil clean". As already noted, agribusiness was also unable to foresee that use of meat and bone meal would lead to the slaughter of some 4.4 million cattle and the deaths of over 200 people around the world in the “mad cow” epidemic.   Given the risks of industrial innovation with our food, we cannot afford to let this issue to remain uncontrolled by either governments or consumers.

Conclusion

Cloning is a health, environmental and moral issue. European governments must be able to track and control the production and importation of clone-derived products. European consumers have a right to know what they are eating and make informed purchasing decisions. This is what is at stake in the recent controversy over clone-derived products in Europe. As with all new food products, information, regulation and caution are necessary. We in the European Parliament hope to be able to force a time for examination and regulation - so that Europeans are allowed to know what is being served in their plates.


Mrs. Corinne Lepage. First elected to the European Parliament in 2009, Mrs. Lepage is a former French Minister of the Environment and founder of the green party CAP21.