A European advisory group, including senior Christian theologians, will on Wednesday deliver its report on the ethical and moral issues surrounding the use of cloned animals and their offspring for food and milk.
“We have taken into account the moral, ethical and social dimensions,” said Göran Hermerén, chairman of the European Group on Ethics in Science and professor of medical ethics at Lund University, Sweden.
The European Food Safety Authority, the bloc’s leading regulator, last Friday issued its draft opinion, stating that milk and meat from cloned pigs and cows, the only two animals in which the technology has been used extensively, was safe.
EFSA is solely concerned with science, however. It is up to the European Commission, the European Union executive, and the 27 national governments to decide whether to follow its advice and what restrictions to impose.
The European Commission has learnt its lessons from the genetically modified crops controversy, which saw them waved through on scientific grounds.
That was until a consumer revolt and media scares about “Frankenfoods” forced a moratorium on approvals for the use of GM crops until 2004, when a US complaint to the World Trade Organisation was upheld.
Last week the European Commission emphasised that EFSA’s opinion, out for consultation before a final ruling expected in May, was just the start of a long process.
“This has opened the discussion on this issue and a really comprehensive discussion is important,” said a spokeswoman for Markos Kyprianou, the health and food safety commissioner.
He has already commissioned the first EU-wide poll on the subject.
Already in breach of trade rules over genetically modified crops, the EU will face an uphill battle to accept cloned animals after Tuesday’s final report by the US Food and Drug Administration backed the technology.
Biotechnology companies complain that European politicians base decisions on popular opinion rather than science.
“Europe is the only region in the world that allows politicians to take these decisions,” said Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary-general of EuropaBio, a lobby group for the biotech industry.
However, others argue there is little point approving foods that the public would not buy.
Polls have shown seven in 10 Europeans would not eat GM food.
European Commission research reveals that hostility to new technology is mainly confined to food.
“There is widespread support for medical and industrial biotechnologies, but apparently significant opposition to agricultural biotechnologies in all but a few countries,” its summary of a 2005 survey of opinion says.
“Unless new crops and products are seen to have consumer benefits, the public will continue to be sceptical.”
Cloning should anyway be limited in the EU. Few companies are engaged in research.
Breeding to improve livestock tends to be done by co-operatives and national associations, so there is little competitive pressure, as there is in the US.
However, farmers worry that if the US presses ahead, it could be hard to obtain non-cloned sources of semen and breeding stock.
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