One story in the press this week that had me frustrated was coverage of the revelation that two cows born from a cloned parent had their beef enter the UK human food-chain.
The tone of all the coverage was outrage. None of the stories went into depth about why we should be ‘outraged’ suggesting it is self-evident. To me it was not. That left me feeling a bit thick. In my simple northern mind if you have a cow you would be happy to eat and you make a healthy clone then you should be happy to eat that too. Probably 90% of the plant based food I have eaten in my entire life has been cloned and that seems to have caused me no harm and nobody seems to have lost sleep. So is it different with mammals?
Well, the US Food and Drug Agency (FDA) has looked at the issue in some depth since 2007, they concluded that they could find no difference between healthy cloned animals and genetically similar animals produced by normal reproduction. (see here for the summary). So what is the objection? After a bit of Googling it seems to boil down to:
a) Animal welfare: the evidence is that cloned animals currently have an increased chance of birth defects.
b) General Objections to bigger/more cattle: Cows, particularly healthy big ones, eat a load of grain/grass to grow. In a world of limited (and diminishing) agricultural space you could feed more humans if instead of growing food for cows and then eating the cow you simply grew food for humans.
c) The absence of any evidence that something is a danger is not the same as evidence of it being safe.
Now remember the trigger for the outrage is supposed to be that this beef has entered the food chain. Argument ‘A’ is an argument against cloning full stop. Argument B is an argument against eating cows full stop. Argument C, whilst true, is also a crazy argument against consuming anything ever, full stop. All three are interesting debates in themselves but at best they are only tangently related to concerns about meat entering the food chain.
The truth is that the press know that ‘Outrage’ sells more than ‘Mild Debate’. The media feeds off the frenzy of scare stories and they can manufacture more column inches in debate through their faux ‘outrage’. It is self-serving waffle. I guess we just have to accept that this is how the media works and all put on our own critical thinking hats whenever these stories break. What worries me is that whilst in politics newspapers have their party political biases and you know that stories ‘spun’ sensationally in one paper will be counterbalanced with the opposite view in other mainstream papers – with science it increasingly seems to me that all UK papers (even so-called qualities such as the FT, Telegraph, Times and Guardian) are happy to run with the sensationalist spin or headline from the view point of the Luddite. It sells papers. Without the enlightened counter-balance though I really fear that the public is increasingly being pushed into being sceptical of and turning against scientific advance. That’s dangerous.