Edible Media takes an occasional look at interesting or deplorable food journalism on the web.
The New York Times op-ed page appears to be grooming James E. McWilliams, a professor of history at Texas State University, as a rising pundit on food-politics issues.
In August, The Times ran a McWilliams piece worrying that growing consumer desire for local food might be harming the environment. And yesterday, they had McWilliams wringing his hands about whether cloned meat will get a fair hearing.
His local-food critique didn’t amount to much on examination. And his cloned-meat piece is absurd. In other words, his pundit career is off to a rollicking start. Might a cable-TV show be in the works?
McWilliams’ argument on cloned meat goes like this: because the debate around the technology is so polarized, it will likely never get a fair hearing, and thus we may never harvest its full benefits. He’s making a kind of sensible-middle argument: if only everyone could think logically, unhindered by emotion — like us in the sensible middle — then everything would be fine.
The argument starts to go awry in his opening sentence:
Last month the Food and Drug Administration gave the green light to food made from cloned cows, pigs and goats, with the agency’s top food-safety expert, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, declaring, “It is beyond our imagination to even have a theory for why the food is unsafe.”
You see, while McWilliams worries about polarization, the FDA’s green light effectively ended much of the debate around cloned meat. And consumers will likely reap its alleged benefits whether they want to or not, because the FDA also ruled that cloned meat need not be labeled. In other words, one side of this polarized debate has all the power, and has already rammed its agenda through. All that’s left for hysterics and sensible middlers to do is, well, write op-eds.
This, despite the FDA’s own finding that:
Calves and lambs produced through cloning tend to have higher birth weights and longer gestation periods, which may lead to difficult births. Repeated exposure of individual animals to invasive procedures to harvest oocytes for SCNT is likely to cause pain and distress. In addition, the survival rate of cloned fetuses is low, and some survivors have health problems such as heart and lung disease.
Given that cloned meat will soon enough become a fact of the supermarket, what precisely is McWilliams concerned about? He cites the case of genetically modified food. In his world, hysterical opposition to GM foods has cost the world a litany of wonders: “insect-resistant cassava or drought-tolerant maize [that] could be a boon to subsistence farmers in Africa,” for example.
If similar opposition to cloning mounts, we’ll miss out on “bacon that has heart-protective Omega 3’s, say, or milk produced by cows that are stronger and thus need fewer antibiotics.”
There are many problems with this argument. First, opposition to GM food may be strong, but some measures at least, it has failed miserably. Today, more than 90 percent of all U.S. soy, and about half of all corn, is genetically modified. These crops pervade the U.S. food system; shrill opposition aside, U.S. supermarket shelves and fast-food counters groan with food containing GM ingredients.
But hasn’t anti-GM hysteria hindered efforts to help subsistence farmers in Africa? Not likely. Rather, researchers have largely been unable — despite much trying — to come up with effective GM tropical crops. The most famous example is Monsanto’s ill-fated virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya.
Meanwhile, while GM opponents write leaflets and blog posts, people with power and cash are hotly promoting GMs in Africa. The Gates Foundation, for example, tapped long-time Monsanto exec Rob Horsch to head up its lavishly funded ag-technology efforts in Africa.
So McWilliams’ sensible-middle approach doesn’t really illuminate much at all. Whatever the alleged benefits cloned meat offers, we’ll probably get them — like it or not.