Cloned Animal Meat

The Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom has released the results of a study it commissioned on public sentiment about cloned animal meat, reports James Meikle in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/jun/06/foodtech.food. It seems that the majority of the British public are resolutely opposed to the commercial use of cloned animal meat. The study reported a range of concerns about the possible harms of farming and consuming cloned animals, as well as a lack of appreciation of any benefits other than additional profits to farmers, biotech companies and food retailers. The views reported in the study are roughly in accord with a recent opinion of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), presented to the European Commission, which suggested that cloning animals for food is unethical. See http://ec.europa.eu/european_group_ethics/activities/docs/opinion23_en.pdf.

      The EGE acknowledges that there are potential benefits that may arise from cloning, especially the prospect of better quality meat. However the EGE suggests that these benefits are outweighed by the ethical costs of allowing cloned meat to be commercially produced. Readers familiar with reports by European Commission bodies on new technologies and new food products would expect that the possible risks of eating cloned meat would take centre stage in the report. But this is not the case. The EGE raises the possibility that there are such risks but declines to comment on these in any great detail, on the grounds that they lack expertise on the subject. The release of FDA documents producing evidence for the conclusion that there are no harms to human health from eating clones, or the offspring of clones, from cattle, swine and goats, may have played a role in leading to the EGE to downplay the risks to humans of eating cloned meat. See http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2008/NEW01776.html.

      The core argument of the EGE is that the process of cloning involves significant levels of animal suffering. It seems that current cloning techniques involve a significant level of perinatal and postnatal disease and mortality amongst animals. Although this is an important argument, it is very hard to see why it should be considered to be a decisive argument. At best it tells against the use of current cloning techniques in food production. But it is reasonable to expect cloning techniques to improve, so the importance of the argument will weaken over the course of time and there may well come a time when it is accepted that the benefits of cloning animals for food outweighs this increasingly reducing cost. A second problem with the EGE laying so much stress on the ethical importance of this harm to animals is that it leaves Europeans open to the charge of rank inconsistency. There are traditional forms of breeding animals that that are permitted in some European countries which involve significant levels of suffering to animals (most notably the production of foie gras in France). If these are permitted then it seems that other techniques that involve some pain and suffering to animals should also be permitted. This point is due to Krzysztof Marczewski, a member of the EGE who wrote a dissenting opinion to the EGE majority opinion.

      Apart from over-reliance on a weak argument, the EGE appeals to some considerations which appear to be poor substitutes for arguments. In particular, the EGE point out that cloning may create a ‘moral unease’ in people and we are told that ‘this cannot be simply dismissed’ (p. 39). I agree that such an unease cannot be dismissed if there is a serious argument lurking behind it, waiting to be uncovered. However, if the unease turns out to be based on nothing other than a feeling of dislike, or an unthinking bias in favour of the status quo, then it should be dismissed. Here we enter the territory of the ‘yuk’ factor and the ‘wisdom in repugnance’, terms associated with Leon Kass. Kass has done us all a disservice by popularising the view that appeals to feelings are somehow equivalent to arguments.

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