20th June 2012

By Jake Cunningham

Guest writer for Wake Up World

I recently wrote a contributing piece for Wake Up World saying that the use of Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO’s is meddling in science and meddling with long established natural, biological and genetic processes through the genetic altering of organisms for a desired outcome.

As we all know there is currently a pitched battle going on in mainstream society (specifically in the US as Jack Weber recently wrote about) around the potential short and long term costs and adverse effects on animals, humans and the environment of undertaking GMO research and around the ethics of disclosure of GMO product that ends up on the supermarket shelf.

Today I am going to take a specific look at what’s going on in China with GMO’s, having genetically modified 300 dairy cows for the production of human “breast” milk, as it’s quite a shock and something we all need to be aware of with the cows being the tip of the iceberg…

A bit of background:

The genetic modification of animals and plants originated largely as research science looking to identify genes involved in common human diseases and trying to find  solutions for these human diseases that have a genetic basis, for example cystic fibrosis, cancer and diabetes. In the main it involved mice in a very controlled environment. However today it has moved beyond medical science into the production of food and produce for human consumption in many countries including the US and China, and is pushing the limits of science and our ethics as a species.

The Chinese cows:

In 2003, after years of testing on mice, researchers at the State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology at the China Agricultural University introduced human genetic coding into the DNA of Holstein dairy cow embryos, and then transferred the embryos into cow surrogates. The result was the first cow that could produce milk with the same nutritional properties as human breast milk.

This transgenic (which just means a genetically engineered animal containing genetic material from at least one unrelated organism), herd of now 300 cows was then bred by inserting human genes into cloned cow embryos which were then implanted into surrogate cows.

By 2011 they announced that they had genetically modified 300 dairy cows able to produce human breast milk, and these cloned cattle now live on an experimental farm in suburban Beijing, with new calves delivered every week.

The milk is still undergoing safety tests but with government permission the goal is that within 3 years it will be sitting on supermarket shelves (and probably in the US also!). They argue the milk produced by these transgenic cows was identical to human breast milk.

Professor Li Ning, the project’s director as well as lead researcher said:

“Our modified cow milk contains several major properties of human milk; in particular proteins and antibodies which we believe are good for our health and able to improve our immune system.”

In fact the Chinese go as far as to say it is better for you because it is genetically modified!!

However the RSPCA in the UK said it is “extremely concerned” by the development. A spokesperson for the organisation said: “Offspring of cloned animals often suffer health and welfare problems, so this would be a grave concern. Why do we need this milk — what is it giving us that we haven’t already got?”

The backdrop to China’s “research” has been finding other alternatives to breastfeeding post a series of contamination scandals that rocked Chinese families trust in the dairy sector and its formula and powdered milk products. For example in 2008, at least six children died and nearly 300,000 fell ill from drinking powdered milk laced with melamine, an industrial chemical added to low quality or diluted milk to fool inspectors checking for protein levels.

In spite of the animal, human and ethical issues the justification by the Chinese to do this is breathtaking, so I’ll quote directly from the Director of the project, Professor Li Ning;

There are 1.5 billion people in the world who don’t get enough to eat. It’s our duty to develop science and technology, not to hold it back. We need to feed people first, before we consider ideals and convictions.

i.e. Stuff the risks, stuff animal and human welfare and stuff the ethics.

Some of the real issues and concerns:

  • Initially the Chinese researchers implanted 312 blastocysts into cows. But only 37 full-term calves were born, of which ten died soon after birth, six more did not survive beyond six months and only four were found to reach normal lactation
  • On top of this a significant number of abnormalities can develop that lead to both abortions and low survival for those animals that do reach term.
  • Greenpeace noted that China has invested heavily in genetically modified food research in recent years, despite the lack of a credible, independent system of supervision and inspection.
  • There are the potential adverse effects on other animals with interbreeding and the small sample of animals in the experiment, and the unknown outcome of breeding with non GMO’s, when they runs “wild”.
  • A major concern is that modern science is not able to comprehend all the possible negative consequences of tampering with a species genetic code, hence the potential longer term harm to human health of consuming GMO product is still unknown.
  • Brown University in the US’ said that GMO foods can present significant allergy risks to humans. The reason being that Genetic modification often mixes or adds proteins that weren’t indigenous to the original plant or animal, causing new allergic reactions in the human body. In some cases, proteins from an organism that you’re allergic to may be added to an organism that you weren’t originally allergic to, prompting the same allergic reaction experienced from the first organism.
  • Breast milk experts are also dubious about this research. “This is an interesting scientific achievement but it really has little relevance to feeding babies,” says Professor Peter Hartmann of the University of Western Australia. He says lysozyme is only one of 279 proteins in human milk that provide protection to babies. Babies are also protected by antibodies circulating in the breastfeeding mother, says Hartmann, who is president of the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation. “Claims of producing cows that secrete breast milk are naïve to the extreme,” he says, adding lysozyme would be largely destroyed during pasteurisation of cow’s milk.
  • In Australia David Nation from the Dairy Futures CRC in Melbourne says there is no active research on genetically modified cows in Australia. The reason he said was “The dairy industry [in Australia] made a very definite decision to discontinue investment in transgenics because there are still lots of technical limitations and still large ethical issues to resolve with the community,” He also said that previous research on transgenic cows in Australia found problems with calf mortality and that that is considered one of the big unknowns in this technology and that problems are even more pronounced when the clone has been genetically modified.

So where does all this sit with the Chinese?

Regardless of all this, China is proudly embracing genetically modified foods whether the citizens like it or not! On top of the 300 GMO cows, the Chinese Government has recently approved Insect-resistant rice and corn modified to help pigs absorb more nutrients, and GM cooking oil, papayas, tomatoes and potatoes are widely available to be bought, without full disclosure of being GMO.

All this from a country with questionable human rights history and I suggest a regulatory environment that takes little heed or care for animal welfare or in running science experiments on animals and humans.

The only hope is the trickle of Chinese activists getting the message out to the west. Recently graphic pictures came out of China of a lady forced by the Government into an abortion 7 months into her pregnancy as she already had one child…. I wonder how many cows have actually suffered and died to date…

So what is next for Chinese science you may wonder? Well they are already working on genetically modified beef cattle to produce more nutritious meat.

About the Author

Jake Cunningham is interested in discussing and writing about the deeper questions facing humanity. Obviously the environment is one such issue but the greater psychological reason behind our behaviors he believes is the real question. If we can solve the riddle of the human condition, why we are the way we are — why we are destructive and selfish then possibly that will be the answer to all the problems in the world…

 

   

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