The Perfect Steak

A belated response to last month’s news.

In the USA, bulls deemed capable of producing ‘the perfect steak’ are being cloned and bred with natural-born cows, giving rise to offspring that will, it is hoped, provide unflinchingly reliable and uniformly tasty platefuls of protein.

In the UK, cloned meat is currently banned, ostensibly because no one can be sure of its effects on public health after it has entered the human food chain.

It is right to be cautious about cloned farm animals— and perhaps more importantly, cloned farm plants— but not because of any immediate effects on human health.

The widespread fear over such ‘franken-foods’ in the UK feeds off a general distaste of genetic modification technology: the idea that ‘tampering with nature’ is somehow intrinsically wrong, and will lead to unexpected and unpleasant results. This may end up being true— but not in the way many critics expect.

Modern breeding and genetic modification (GM) technologies, such as gene transfer and cloning, simply represent an extension of the traditional GM technology of selective breeding. In particular, cloning should not present much immediate danger to human health. The whole point is that the clone is identical to the parent: so as long as the traditionally-bred parent animal is safe, there is no reason why the daughter animal should not be safe. Protein is just protein.

The problem with cloning and GM is not a problem that is intrinsic to the technologies themselves. Indeed, these techniques promise a way to artificially speed up the introduction and dissemination of desirable characteristics into human foods, and in an increasingly uncertain world, this may be a good thing. The problem is not with the technology, but with how it is likely to be used. If the US reports are correct, the signs are not good.

Cloning technology allows a single ‘perfect steak’ animal to be faithfully replicated on an industrial scale. Leaving aside the thorny question of who adjudicates the ‘perfect steak’, this serves up a well-known set menu of problems associated with monocultures in farming.

When a single animal or plant type is farmed on a large scale there is a loss of diversity, which leaves the crop or herd vulnerable to pests and diseases. Essentially, a population that is genetically uniform across space and time presents a sitting duck for evolving pathogens, and has a smaller genetic resource to draw on when facing the inevitable global barrage of biogeochemical and climatic surprises.

Ecologists call this a lack of ‘response diversity’. A livestock or crop disease could exploit a universal flaw in a genetically identical population and wipe it out in a stroke; or a freak weather event, or shift in climate, could leave food organisms adapted for previous environmental conditions struggling to survive. A diverse population, on the other hand, is more likely to contain resistant individuals, so that at least some of the stock can be saved for consumption or (in the case of cattle) rebuilding the herd.

GM and cloning may make our food supply more efficient, by optimising it for a pre-judged set of desirable conditions and outcomes, but they also make the system more brittle to unexpected shocks. This is the real risk of the technology: that it will be adopted and rolled out on an industrial basis, with efficiencies-of-scale dictating a limited number of genotypes in the foods we all eat. If we fail to maintain a sufficiently diverse reserve of pre-existing food species, we will be left vulnerable when circumstances change.

This is a very different kind of threat to that envisaged by many opponents of GM and cloning. People remain fearful of unspeakable sci-fi genetic monstrosities rampaging though our countryside. Yet these fears must be adequately addressed, and the technology must be proven safe— because the judicious use of accelerated genetic manipulation may ultimately prove useful for food production in a rapidly changing world. I can see an argument for a diverse, well-regulated small-scale agricultural GM and cloning ‘cottage industry’ in increasing the resilience of our food supply system. Rather than a sinister threat, this positive use of the technology may represent a significant public health benefit.

So the greatest danger of cloned beef is not the cloning itself: it is in the unattainable ideal of the universal ‘perfect steak’.


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