Friday, January 7, 2011

Cows Modified to Produce Human Milk

Photo courtesy: Tambako the Jaguar/Creative Commons.

This one belongs in the "Are you kidding me?" category. There are a few levels on which I find this morally repugnant.

First, I find interfering with the genetic coding of any member of any species is wrong. We should not put ourselves in the position of playing God when we are unaware of the effects our tinkering will bring in the years to come. It is unfair to the animals we are altering.

Second, this milk will not provide the benefits that real breast milk provides the infants. Many mothers may chose not to breast feed due to a misguided belief that this "human-like" milk can do the same job that human breast milk can. No matter how much tinkering with or altering of genes is done, nothing will cause real human milk to be available from a cow. The only place real human milk is available is at the lactating breasts of a human woman.

Unfortunately, reports from Times of India are that researchers in China have genetically modified some 200 cows so that the milk they produce is similar to human milk.

The director of the State Key Laboratories for Agrobiotechnology at China Agricultural University says:
The scientists have successfully created a herd of more than 200 cows that is capable of producing milk that contains the characteristics of human milk. The milk tastes stronger than [cow or goat] milk. Within ten years, people will be able to pick up these human milk-like products at the supermarket ... [the] healthy protein contained in human milk [will be] affordable for ordinary consumers.

The ToI article points out that when children drink human milk it helps improve their immune systems and central nervous systems. Indeed, breast feeding has been shown to have many benefits for children. However, many (if not all) of these benefits would be lost if the children were being fed the genetically-modified milk.

Wet nurses have saved uncountable children over the ages they have been practising. Wet nurses are women who are still lactating; and, capable of feeding an infant. In fact, in some cultures nursing the babies of women who are unable to is so common the children of both families are referred to as "milk" siblings. Perhaps it's time to resurrect an old tradition. It certainly would be healthier for the babies.

If factory-farmed dairy weren't bad enough, now someone really thought it was a good idea to genetically modify the cows to produce a substance similar to something that humans already produce naturally. Duh?

I see a marvelous opportunity for wet nursing to take a foothold once more. Feeding a child that the mother can't could earn poor women worldwide a few extra dollars. Being a wet nurse has long been considered an honourable profession. The babies would most certainly be healthier than if they were fed the genetically-altered, sort of human-like milk obtained from cows. Given the choice, I'll take the human wet nurse every time.

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