Lessons from the past bring a new argument against cloning

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Posted by Herve | Posted in Sustainable agriculture | Posted on 25-11-2010

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[singlepic id=44 w=180 float=left]Cloned cattle have been the subject of some recent front-page coverage in Europe[1a] [1b]. Meat from cloned animals has also been approved by FDA for human consumption two years ago[2]. With this come the usual heard arguments: the pro- parties say that there is no difference between a clone and its “parent” (or sibling?), in which they are right on a purely genetic point of view, and they go on saying that the Earth resources are limited (correct), and that we need to feed everybody (true but how to save the world from hunger is subject to discussion). Those against cloning point out that the long-term implication have not been tested (true as well), that cloned animals have a very high rate of abnormality (correct[3]) and implies significant levels of cruelty to animals (correct[3]).

But besides all of those perfectly valid albeit slightly passionate arguments I’d like to bring one which is not heard often, and the implications of which are rarely made plain enough. It is a cold, logical and scientific argument linked to the survival of the fittest theory from Darwin. But first, let’s take lessons from a troubled period of our history.

Ireland, 1845. The country had been under English rule for over 200 years[4]. A system of iniquitous laws, absentee landlords and middlemen brought the Irish people under extreme poverty, with some families living on as little as half an acre plot[5], plus having to pay a large rent to the owner. In order to maximise return they cultivated potatoes as their main crop. Specifically, they planted the “lumper” potato variety. And since potatoes are normally propagated vegetatively, all of these lumpers were clones, genetically identical to one another[6].

[singlepic id=46 w=180 float=right]One day of September, a fog reportedly spread over the fields of Ireland, bringing with it famine and death. The potato plants suddenly started to turn black, curl and die out in front of the disbelieving peasants, plunging them into despair and hunger[7]. Potatoes dug out of the ground at first looked edible, but shrivelled and rotted within day.
The harvests of the following years were complete failure, and with millions depending completely on potatoes, people were reduced to eating their cattle, sheep, dogs and cats or even grass[8]. It is estimated that as a result one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland[9].

It is now understood that the cause of the famine was a mold cold Phytophthora infestans[10], which, incidentally, has made a comeback in recent years due to fungicide resistance[11].

[singlepic id=45 w=180 float=left]So what can be learnt from the tragedy Irish people lived more than a century ago? I believe that the real danger with cloning has nothing to do with the misconception about eating dangerous food, it has to do with SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST: Clone herds of cows, and what you will end up is a huge number of replicas of the same strengths and flaws. Now, it would suffice that ONE BACTERIA finds a killer flaw, and we would end up with a very large scale disaster. The more cloned animals/plant there is, the more prone to large-scale disaster global agriculture will be. In other words, less genetic variety = increased susceptibility to epidemics. Instead of creating nature freaks, scientists should focus on how to make a sustainable agriculture based on . Genetic diversity is the best way to adapt to the disasters of diseases, climate change and so on.

For more information on how to do this, see for instance Return To Resistance or Self-organising Agroecosystems from Raoul A. Robinson

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