The Risk-Monger

This month we learn that both Argentine and Chinese researchers have been able to modify genes so that a cow can produce human-like breast milk. As we begin to ponder the societal value of the mass production of more nutritious milk that is less toxic to humans (plus other options that could be “designed in” like insulin-fortified milk), we also need to prepare for the anticipated outrage.

This is a classic example of risk-generation in its incubation stage, so before the issue becomes tainted with biased fear campaigns telling us what to think and images of new-born babies suckling on udders forcing us to react emotionally, it might be interesting to assess the risk vectors.

Benefits:

  • Cow’s milk is highly toxic to humans (why we sterilise and pasteurise) and lacks the nutritional value of mother’s milk. By being able to mass-produce human-like milk (plus other dairy products), infants will be able to enjoy the benefits of breast milk for much longer.
  • We could expect allergies to be reduced.
  • Adults who drink this milk may enjoy health benefits and better quality of life (imagine milk with insulin or cholesterol lowering properties). While not the fountain of youth, this may be a key to better living into old age.

There are though some serious societal, health and ethical risks to this, and all we have are potential scenarios.

Societal risks:

  • It is interesting from a scientific level to see what can be done, but the moment a large multinational begins to market these products, or try to patent mother’s milk, I suspect there will be less curiosity and more animosity.
  • Some women might see this as a liberation; others as a curse (complicating a bond between a mother and child).
  • Critics may argue that we don’t need this – that we are fine with our present milk mix and we did not ask science or industry for this (this view though is a selfish, elite position – something on which I have always been very critical towards environmental activists). I would be more concerned that as a designer food product, it will be expensive, keeping the benefits out of reach for large portions of the population.
  • Is society ready for this? I recall that a shop in the UK once listed human breast milk on its menu and was forced to remove it. Perhaps the motive was more quality control or that women were treated as stockaded food producers.

Health risks: This is the dark horse.

  • When something goes inside your body (food, pharma, chemicals), it raises risk alarms (you don’t get more personal than that). When something goes inside new-borns, they become risk sirens. While bovine toxins may be eliminated from this new milk, safeguards must not be lowered for the sake of nutritional gains (E. coli can be pretty harsh on infant guts). We must continue to sterilise.
  • The Chinese anticipate bringing transgenic milk to market within three years (the Argentines are wisely not saying anything) but the long-term health effects will not be known for generations.

Ethical risks:

  • Designer foods have limits. Cows are cows and humans are humans – so we are told this is how nature intends it to be. Should we be playing God by designing cows to produce human milk? I have always felt uneasy evaluating research proposals that involve transgenic or knockout mice (mice designed and produced with human organs for the purpose of research). The benefits are evident (as early research on humans would be too risky), the risks are low (a transgenic mouse with a human liver would not live very long outside of the lab), but I still feel that lines should be drawn on what we can or cannot do to other species for our benefit. Ethics is not about weighing risks and benefits; it is about who we are (virtue) and what we do (duty).
  • It may take some time to get used to eating beef from cows with human genes.

I don’t believe there is any legislation existing in Europe about the use and marketing of human milk (even though wet-nurses have been around for as long as mothers). As soon as Brussels decides to establish parameters and definitions, we can expect the interest groups to raise their flags and set up camp. I thought I would enjoy the pre-lobby silence to share some ideas on this incubating risk. Is there a way to have a discussion on this issue without it escalating into episodes of images, emotion and fear? I don’t think the media could resist polarising this issue – it is just too juicy. I would recommend that the European Commission conduct a very long consultation (perhaps a decade) so that we can go through an “acquaintance” period.

OK, I have had my calm reflections on this. Time to sit back and let the hysteria games begin.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this piece David, indeed very scary idea… and I completely agree with you that this kind of “food engineering” crosses many lines. So in the name of baby cows, cow mothers and future human generations, and also as an expecting mother, I protest as well…!!!

    I often read your blog, interesting topics and great reasoning, don’t always agree with you, but that makes it even more interesting and enriching, it is good to be challenged with strong and well-structured arguements :o) bon weekend!

    1. Thank you for your comment. Indeed, sometimes I am offended by the things I say, but we need to keep thinking.

  2. It is very simple. We are a cultured nation as part of Europe under Christian values and we don’t play gods or interfere in God’s creation, leave that to the godless Chinese communists and leave punichment to our Lord.

    1. Hmmm, … but the Argentines are more Catholic than the Pope so I am not sure your argument has legs. What surprises me is that after the melamine tragedy, you would have expected Chinese regulators to tread carefully on what they feed their babies. One of the virtues (I think) of a command economy?

  3. attn. AR
    This has nothing to do with God or God’s creation.
    This absurdity should be prhibited because of the common sense!! (and not because of GOD!!!!)

    1. I totally agree but I let that through the filter because the one of the main voices in this debate will be that of religion. The challenge for the debate that will come will not be for us to draw lines between rationality and superstition. Here is how to poison the well of simplicity: What is the difference between saying: “That is not the way God made us!” and “That is not the way nature made us!”?

  4. What a boring subject is it! the environment is a pre condition and human interactions is a necessity for our survival and by changing our condition we are changing ourselves. the nature is not GOD! this is a populist item.
    Environment and the human activity is mutually affected by each other, but man react according to his needs to get more in this capital and competition based economy and the environment is exploited according to this two factors.
    So simply is it. This has nothing to do with religion. And here we are in the political debate of equity and efficiency (social and economic topics, left and right wing, and the environmental, the global environmental the sustainable progress the fact of being interconnected etc….. ) As long as people’s elementary need and level of knowledge is low the religion remains a need (if not people would become terrorists or commit suicide because the stronger is the winner). There is no need to mix up economic goals with religion. (this is causal and to overcome this causality it is about to find an alter solution to the whole organisation we are stuck in: capitalism and religion)

    1. If I agree with you JM that theism is the religion of the economically backward, would you accept then that environmentalism is the religion of the economically advanced? Both add meaning to people’s lives, and both emotionally confront perceived injustice with alternative salvation strategies. Your remarks about global economies, capital and competition-based economies and their environmental degradation suggest that you sing in a different, economically advanced, choir on Sundays.
      But that is why I am attracted to the human-like breast milk issue at this moment in time – the anti-globalisation, pro-nature religious groups have not yet distorted the issue with their preconceptions. At the moment, this is about scientists seeing how they can improve the quality of life (something we used to call progress), not about evil industry trying to profit by contaminating nature with some synthetic biotechnology. Environmentalists’ cynicism implies that it is bound to happen so they are jumping in with their icons; my cynicism implies that clear thinking stops when the issues get weighed down with such religion. An optimist would hope that we are both proven wrong.
      This is indeed a holy cow.

  5. “Time to sit back and let the hysteria games begin.” – just as you said. I’m not very interested in participating in a “HYSTERIA GAME”

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