Cloned cows, science vs. technology, Modern Farmer, et al.

Modern Farmer. What a fucking joke. I get their email newsletter. It led me to an article about the biggest animal cloning factory in the world. It’s being built right now in China. The piece fills one with…that untethered feeling that defines the 21st century, if UR old like me, LOL!

My comments, and responses below. My job is to smack your face out of Richard Dawkins butthole.

Mike A said:

Animal genetics have been getting more and more homogenized for centuries, if not millennia now, and cloning is the next logical step in that process. The questions we should be asking are: “is genetic homogenization a sustainable trend?” and, “Do we want our food-production systems to be so hyper-engineered that they can only be managed by the most powerful and technologically-advanced organizations in the world?” and “What do we lose when we lose diversity?”

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      Mike, Even if the Chinese company can clone a million animals a year, that is way less than 1% of the world’s beef supply. What they are doing is hardly any different than the highly selective breeding that has been going on with dairy cows for the last 50 years. Did you know that 10% of all the Holstein dairy cows in the world (and that is a majority of all the dairy cows in the world) are descendants of one bull?
      Unless some pretty significant improvements can be made in feed efficiency and disease resistance though genetic engineering, there will be a limited market for any one genomic variety of cloned beef. Even if they succeed in marketing multiple genomic lines of cloned animals, they are going to have a limited market. We are going to have plenty of beef, clones or no clones. Producers know that they must have mixed genetics to produce good calf crops – that is a market force that will insure that the cattle industry does not rely on a narrow genetic base.
      Our food production system is already highly dependent upon a few very powerful companies: Con-Agra, JBS, Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield, and Sysco. Shut them down, and there would be almost no meat in the stores within days. Cargill and Con-Agra control a big market share in some other commodities as well.
      Our food safety rules are getting tighter all the time – Chipotle just announced that their stronger food safety procedures would be such that some of their local suppliers would no longer be able to meet their requirements. Small processing companies will increasingly be forced to shut down. Government regulation leads to fewer, larger companies.
      Cloning will not cause a loss in diversity. We have dairy bulls now who produce over a half a million offspring; that injects better genetics into the herd, but it does not reduce diversity. If we can make significant incremental genetic improvements through genetic engineering, cloning will be a way to distribute those genetics faster than can now be done through artificial insemination. The fact that cloning is being done will not endanger our food supply, any more than 50 years of artificial insemination has endangered our food supply. In fact, genetic improvement is one of the main driving forces behind the enormous improvements in production efficiency of dairy cows over the last 70 years: today, U.S. dairy farms produce over twice as much milk as they did in 1940, with less than half as many cows.
      As I have already stated, I question the economic viability of the cloning enterprise, but there is no doubt in my mind that to the extent it is successful it will be a win for producers and consumers and the environment, just as it has been for the dairy industry.

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      As I said, I’m well aware of the genetic streamlining of human-bred animals.

      I don’t think that I implied that that this particular factory is a problem, in fact I implied the opposite: that it could be problematic if this is the future of breeding.

      Diverse genetics are important. I don’t think anyone disputes that fact. You seem convinced that we can trust agricultural technology giants to ensure that genetics stay diverse in the long-term, I think you have a naive and overly-trusting attitude toward these organizations.

      We have different world views: you have boundless faith in the wisdom of man, I think that man is filled with misplaced self-confidence. There is really no way to reconcile these views; only time will tell.

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      This has nothing to do with “world view”. It has everything to do with biology. Can you please tell me why you think cloning will reduce diversity?

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        Here we go, against my better judgement….

        Worldview colors every human endeavor, even science. When a scientist, who is after all a human being, imagines a hypotheses, it is invariably influenced by her worldview—her cognitive experience of the world. There is no purely objective way to go about imagining things, only in testing their veracity.

        In any case, we aren’t even talking about Science™, we’re talking about technology—the application of knowledge which is often, although not necessarily, derived from scientific methods.

        Many people like to hitch the two together, as in “Science™ and Technology.” Some people like to hitch the two together without declaring it, and assume that no one will notice. Other people like to take advantage of this linguistic trick, and cheerlead for greater corporate centralization, under the guise of the infallible truth-seeking mechanism that is Science™. What they are really talking about is technology.

        They do this because both Science™ and technology often require enormous sums of capital to function, but the capital invested in Science™ can be leveraged to bring the relevant technology to fruition. This often results in significant returns for shareholders.

        Cloning, as I’m sure you know, is creating an organism with the exact genetic sequence of its parent organism. That is to say, there is no genetic difference between the two, or five, or ten billion (mutations may occur though). So I can’t really see how cloning is anything but the loss of diversity.

        There is, after all, a slight difference between a cow created through artificial insemination, and it’s sister created through the same parents. There is (virtually) no difference between two “sisters” created through cloning.

        But more to the point, my belief is that if we have to depend on the organizations that are able to leverage the significant resources to make genetic diversity happen, we are placing foolish faith in unaccountable stakeholders. That is a manifestation of my worldview. Your belief is that…well, I don’t want to speak for you.

        The Gros Michele was said to be a superior banana to the Cavendish in every respect. But we just go on eating Cavendish anyway, even as it succumbs to a new blight, and we still have no successor. I’d love to taste a Gros Michele someday.

        I go on. If your worldview informs you that the best of all possible worlds is one that is engineered to the nth degree, and all products and endeavors are hyper-specialized for maximum efficiency, why bother with cows? Surely we can do better, in terms of efficiency, than to screw around with a beast that was created entirely by accident of evolution. What about a textured, flavored Soylent®? Or protein from insects, algae, or yeast?

        The technology already exists. All that’s stopping us from deploying it is an irrational belief in our need for…what? Diversity?