Let’s eat clone

Pub date January 23, 2008

› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION I’m looking forward to eating my first clone hamburger. I mean, why not? I eat cloned plants all the time, and I admire cloned flowers. Clone meat seems like the next logical step. And yet I can’t tell you how many bizarre conversations I’ve had with people over the past few days about the apparently controversial move by the Food and Drug Administration this month to approve meat from cloned cows as a foodstuff.

People are really freaked out by eating the meat from a clone. They want it labeled so they can choose to buy "naturally reproduced" meat, by which I suppose they mean cows that are the result of forced breeding, that have been raised in stinky, crowded pens where they eat grain mixed with poop and bubblegum. I mean, I can understand not wanting to eat meat at all — that makes sense. Most farms abuse the hell out of their meat and poultry, and the situation is ugly enough to make you lose your appetite for steak forever.

But cloning? Not so much. It’s just a duplicate cow, people. Nobody has added anything weird to it, like snake genes that will make it spit acid. And if the cloned cow is treated well, allowed to roam free and eat decent food, I don’t see what the big deal is. Cloning has been used to reproduce tasty breeds of vegetables and fruit for centuries (using cuttings), and it’s not likely that animal cloning is going to be any more dangerous.

At least, it won’t be more dangerous for people eating the resulting meat. The clones may have crappy lives — in fact, they probably will, since clones tend to be unhealthier than nonclones anyway. And life in a factory farm isn’t exactly healthy either.

Meanwhile, as people chow down on clone steaks or steaks made from the offspring of clones (what do you call them? Paraclones? Miniclones?), a fertility researcher and a biotech company investor are busy cloning themselves. This month’s hottest clone news wasn’t anything to do with steak. It was the quiet announcement, in the journal Stem Cell, that a company called Stemagen had created viable human embryos from adult skin cells. One of the clones was of Samuel Wood, a guy who runs a fertility clinic next door to Stemagen. Another was of an anonymous investor in Stemagen.

Stemagen claims it won’t be turning these embryos into humans anytime soon, even though the clone embryos they wound up with were as viable as any embryo they might implant in a woman undergoing in vitro fertilization treatments. Of course, the company could just be covering its ass: human reproduction through cloning is illegal in the United States. Still, people desperate for children might be willing to try cloning at, say, a fertility clinic next door to a biotech company that does cloning. They would certainly keep their mouths shut about their illegal baby, at least if they wanted to keep it.

Just as I am perplexed by the uproar over eating the meat of animal clones, I’m perplexed by people’s discomfort about breeding human clones. Certainly there are ethical issues with creating a human being as part of an experimental procedure. But that doesn’t seem like the main objection people are raising. Mostly they’re saying that there’s something sacrilegious about clones, or something creepy about making babies that don’t require any sperm. (Stemagen’s method involves taking DNA from a skin cell and popping it into an egg to make an embryo — no men are required for this procedure.)

Clones are so scary that one of the best sci-fi comic book series of the past few years — Y: The Last Man (Vertigo), by Brian K. Vaughan — takes as its premise the idea that a woman cloning herself sets off a chain of events that kills every man on Earth.

I think the best way to end this hysteria is to start labeling everything that’s cloned, from the tomatoes you ate last week to the roses you bought your sweetie on Saturday. Once everyone realizes they have clones in their homes and bellies already, it might make them a lot less fearful when they finally meet a human clone. "Oh yes," they can say. "I’ve eaten something like that." *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who would rather eat a cloned cow than a factory-farmed anything. Also, she isn’t interested in eating cloned human babies, no matter how cute they are.