June 17, 2011
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.David Zaruk