Friday, March 09, 2007

Afraid of Eating Cloned Foods? You Already Are

With all the hullabaloo regarding whether we should be allowed to eat cloned animals, I think many people would be surprised to know that we are already eating cloned foods. Many varieties of vegetables and fruits including apples, potatoes and bananas are clones (meaning they are genetically identical to each other). I hadn't realized that apples and potatoes are clones until I recently read The Botany of Desire (and where many of the facts in this post come from).

I have written before on how agriculture isn't natural. Most of the foods we eat are artificial, in that they come from artificial selection. Artificial here not meaning fake but rather showing or reflecting human will (like the word artifact).

Bananas are clones propagated by taking cuttings from suckers that grow from the base of the parent plant. Potatoes are generally grown from the eyes of another potato and not from seed. The apples we eat are clones of each other based on grafting. If you plant the seeds you get a very different fruit.

Aside: Johnny Appleseed might be better thought of as Johnny Hard Apple Cider. Most of the apples that came from the seeds he planted were not eaten directly, but rather fermented and turned into hard apple cider. Without refrigeration, apples wouldn't last long, but cider would. Some rural areas in the United States drank more cider than water (including children) because it was sterilized and therefore healthier than the water. Because of this the Woman's Christian Temperance Union declared war on apples in early 1900s.

While I don't see any danger in eating cloned food, there is a danger for the stability of our food supply. Cloning makes these vegetables and fruits are more susceptible to disease and pests. A single fungus or virus can wipe out an entire variety of a plant. A fungus called fusarium wiped out the Gros Michel variety of bananas, so we now get the inferior tasting Cavendish variety at the grocery store. The phytophthora infestans fungus wiped out the Lumper variety of potato in Ireland in 1845, leading to the potato famine that killed a million people.

The reduced ability to fight off disease and bugs also means that these clones require more pesticides and herbicides. If they were able to breed sexually, they would be able to come up with new genes to fight the diseases and pests that are attacking them. Instead they require pesticides to do the work for them. Apples require more pesticides than any other crop.

It is possible to have non cloning versions of potatoes and apples. In the Andes, where potatoes were domesticated, they grew many different varieties with many evolving to meet a small ecological niche in the environment. The apple came from the mountains of Kazakhstan where there are forests where they grow to be 60 ft tall with fruits ranging in size from marbles to softballs in coming in yellow, green, red, and purple (Wa-wa-wee-wa!). In the US, the gene pool of apples is becoming smaller. There were 1,000s of commercial varieties of apples a hundred years ago, today there are just 6.

Of course if you went without clones, the flavor, size, appearance, and heartiness of each apple or potato would be different and most would be inferior to their parents (and in extreme cases inedible by humans). You wouldn't know exactly what your potato would look like or taste like. The ability to go to a McDonald's anywhere in the world and get the same great tasting fries would be lost.

Would we be better off without cloned food? I don't think so. It allows us to propagate the best varieties of these plants, lets us know what our food is going to taste like and greatly increase the yield of our farms.

Would we be better off with more varieties of potatoes and apples and bananas? Probably. It would give us more variety of foods to eat and also give the plants more genetic diversity to increase their ability to fend off predators.

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