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Independent.ie

Friday 19 January 2018

It's milk - but not as we know it

Cows producing genetically modified milk are now a reality and Irish dairy farmers need to pay heed, argues Enda Quinn

Public perceptions about genetically modified (GM) food products is shifting from wariness to a more positive attitude as I discovered when compiling a survey for the Farming Independent over the past few months.

For the survey, I interviewed 100 parents of children under the age of 10 in the greater Dublin area on the topic of genetically modified milk, mimicking human breast milk, from dairy cows. All questions had the initial proviso of: 'If this GM milk was proven safe by the EU'.

One of the more surprising findings was that 57pc of parents said that this GM milk should be allowed into Europe. Even more surprising was that 38pc of Irish parents said that they would feed this GM milk to their child. In addition, 63pc felt there would be a market for this milk in Ireland.

Another significant finding was that 67pc of those surveyed believed that Irish farmers should be allowed to breed cows for the production of this GM milk if required in the future.

On GM in general, 58pc agreed that GM food would be essential if we are going to feed a growing world population. A surprisingly low figure of 27pc indicated that they were against all GM food production.

Trust was the biggest obstacle for 90pc of parents whom said that they would not feed this GM milk to their child. However, of these, 41pc stated that if this milk was on the market within ten years, they would change their viewpoint.

On completing the study, I felt it was important to talk to Irish dairy farmers about the topic. After contacting 35 Irish milk suppliers at random, the outcome was very surprising.

Using the same proviso of 'if this GM milk was proven safe by the EU first', I asked them would they produce GM milk on their farms - 49pc said yes.

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Probing further, another 8pc of dairy farmers said they would produce GM milk if the premium was attractive enough. Only one of the 35 farmers I interviewed had heard of GM milk previously and none of the 100 parents in the initial survey had heard of it.

It can be argued that this research is not relevant as the current laws in the EU are too stringent to allow the advent of GM milk in the short-to-medium term. However, I feel the Irish dairy industry should not use this as an excuse to bury its head in the sand. The perception that genetically modified milk industries are not emerging and developing around the world, couldn't be further from the truth.

Both China and Argentina have engineered genetically modified cows and scientists in those countries plan to use these cows to produce milk for baby formula.

In China, scientists have strategically introduced human genes into 300 dairy cows, which are now producing human-like breast milk. These scientists believe that the milk from herds of these genetically modified cows, could provide an alternative to breast milk and baby formula, with the latter often criticised as being an inferior substitute.

In Argentina, scientists from the National University of St Martin are also working on this concept. They were the first in the world to introduce two human genes to a cow - named Rosita ISA - which enables her to produce human-like milk.

They believe this will have major implications with baby formula in the future, potentially dramatically cutting costs in its production.

Argentinian Dr Adrian Mutto, one of the three principle scientists responsible for this research, told me that they have plans to artificially inseminate this three-year-old cow. The Jersey breed is to be used and embryos will then be transferred from this cow to recipient cows - this will increase their GM cow numbers at a faster rate for the future.

Like Ireland, New Zealand is a country which prides itself on its green image and could describe its dairy industry as visionary. There, scientists from AgResearch Ltd, have genetically engineered a cow which produces milk free of lactoglobulin (BLG).

Protein

This is a protein not found in human milk and has been shown to cause allergens in one in 50 people, mostly infants.

This cow called Daisy (pictured below) was created with the same cloning procedures that created Dolly the sheep in 1996. Future plans are to gain global market share of the baby formula market, worth over €28.8bn in 2013.

Securing the market for the 2pc of babies that are allergic to cow's milk would be worth €576m per year to New Zealand.

According to Euromonitor International, infant formula is the world's fastest growing functional food with sales increasing by €3.3bn in 2013 alone. Euromonitor International also predicts that the global infant formula market will be worth over €61bn by 2019.

China, Argentina and New Zealand are leading the way on GM milk due to their more relaxed GM research and development laws.

The Irish dairy industry needs to be informed by what consumers desire. But we also need to know if we are being potentially left behind other international dairy industries in areas such as GM milk production.

One of the more interesting findings of this study is that while 38pc of parents said they would feed this milk to their child, another 22pc would change their position within 10 years if the GM product was proven safe.

I believe that if this study was carried out a decade ago these figures would not be as high. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that we have been eating GM food ingredients in Ireland since at least 2001 (when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland first started testing food for GM presence).

These ingredients include soya bean and maize, some of which are herbicide tolerant. As shown in this study there seems to be a trend towards acceptance of GM food.

At the very least, our dairy industry needs to keep up to date with scientific developments on GM milk production.

This new industry, if successful, is likely to develop into a rapidly growing global business.

Our dairy and food industry will need to initiate a debate and decide on the direction we will take with GM milk.

Enda Quinn is an animal nutritionist with a Masters degree in Animal Science and a Masters in Business Administration. Email: endapquinn@gmail.com

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