Genetically Modified Foods

I want to know how much more dangerous is cloned food than the current genetically modified food? I'm scared of eating it.

-A high school teacher from California

February 23, 2007

Cloned food is really new, and new things are always scary. Lots of people have questions about how cloned foods will affect their health.

And since nobody is eating cloned animals right now, we will have to wait and see how good they are for us. But unless something really weird is going on, we probably don't have too much to worry about.

Why would anyone want to clone an animal anyway? For the same reasons we eat natural clones of strawberries and other fruits. Because cloning makes our food more dependably delicious.

I love steak, but I am not very good at picking out my meat. I go to the store, and stand there looking at steaks, always hoping the one I pick will be good. There is just so much difference between cows that I never know what I am going to get.

But scientists are trying to change all of that. Researchers can sort through hundreds of thousands of steaks to find the very best one, made from the very best cow. Then, they can take that perfect cut of beef, and clone it. Each new cloned animal will give steaks just like that perfect dinner.

In the future, we might be able to go to the grocery store and get the same steak every time, knowing that it will always be just as good as the last time. As long as we don't burn it!

Cloning an animal means taking the DNA from an adult and putting it into an egg. (We remove the egg's DNA first.) That way, the new animal that grows will be like the adult.

In fact, as long as it is raised in a pretty similar way, the new cow will be almost exactly like the adult. And so, as far as we know, eating the cloned animal is just as safe as eating the original animal.

Scientists both in Japan and the United States have done lots of research on cloned animals, and have determined that they are safe to eat. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US government agency that makes sure our foods are safe, agrees with the scientists. They don't find anything dangerous with cloned food.

In your question, you compared cloned foods to genetically modified (GM) foods. This is a tricky comparison, since the two are very different.

Genetically modified foods are any food products containing DNA from something else, like another plant or animal, or even from bacteria. This DNA can make foods grow bigger, stay fresh longer, taste better, or be resistant to insects and diseases.

Cloned foods, on the other hand, have to be genetically identical. This means they look, act, and taste pretty much the same. Since GM and cloned foods are opposite, it is hard to compare them.

Just like the FDA is involved in making sure cloned foods are safe to eat, they work to make sure GM foods are safe, too. They test every new GM food, and make sure it is as safe as anything else we eat.

Sometimes dangerous foods are still sold, but that happens all the time with regular foods, too. Just look at all the E. coli deaths from spinach in the last few months.

So how do we know when we are eating GM foods? Unless we only eat organic, we probably are. There are some guesses that almost 80% of the foods we eat contain GM ingredients! And as far as we know, there have been no serious problems associated with GM foods.*

But that doesn't mean that GM foods are perfectly safe, either. It is really hard to know what DNA changes are going to do in plants once they get into the environment. And there might be long-term effects we can't predict.

Reading all of this, it looks like cloned foods are actually much safer than GM foods! We know exactly what the cloned animals will be like. And since there is nothing new, that should make it less scary.

Cloning would be good for more than just steak, too. We can choose any good thing about an animal. Maybe one sheep gives perfect wool, so we could make a whole flock of that sheep and have perfect sweaters. Or maybe a rodeo horse that is a great athlete. We could clone any of them.

Now, just because we can clone animals doesn't mean that we should. Many people are opposed to cloning. Especially because it isn't any harder to clone a person than it is to clone an animal. But that is a question for another day.

I don't want to come across as saying there are no risks to the animals with cloning. For example, many people have heard of Dolly the sheep. Dolly was the first animal to be cloned.

Dolly seemed perfectly normal at first, but she aged very fast, and ended up dying young. That makes us wonder if there is something wrong with cloned animals.

In fact, there are lots of things that can go wrong with cloning. Many attempts at cloning don't work, and some of the animals that are "born" have birth defects. Most of this comes from mistakes in the process, and are not problems with cloning. As we learn more about cloning, it will become faster, easier, and safer.

Now don't worry about cloned foods showing up on the dinner table anytime soon. We are still years away from that happening!

Scientists are still working out the cloning process, and lawmakers are still trying to make sure cloned foods are safe. This is where you can help.

The Food and Drug Administration has decided that they want our input on determining if cloned foods should be sold. Click here for more information on how you can get involved. That way, scientists, lawmakers, and you can all work together to make sure our foods are safe and healthy.

*In one case it was found that when a gene from Brazil nuts was put into soybeans, people allergic to Brazil nuts were also allergic to these soybeans. The soybeans were never marketed. This story proves that the risk of allergic reactions to GM foods is real, but also shows that thorough testing and regulation can catch such problems before the public is harmed.

By Leremy Colf, Stanford University

How to make a better steak?

Dolly died young.