I recently read in the news that a herd of Russian goats, as part of a research project, have been able to produce milk containing human protein. These “genetically modified” goats have been bred with a human genome in their DNA.
Yelena Sadchikova, from the Institute of Biology at the Russian Academy of Sciences described the experiment as an attempt to help bottle-feeding infants. Such modification would provide infants the protection that articicial feeding did not. But at the same time, Sadchikova agreed that long term effects could be lethal.
This is true, and on the surface it may look like an ingenious way to help formula fed babies receive immune protection similar to breastfed babies. Even non-interfered-with goats milk has shown no allergic reaction in children, and contains high levels of lactoferrin (the component that protects the goat’s kids from infection whilst their own immune system develops — in the GM goats, the lactoferrin element is regulated so that human babies will receive the right amount).
No one can deny that the technology developed by these scientists is astounding. However, there are serious ethical issues to consider here. Opposers of GM research say that the technology has not been around for long enough to be considered completely safe for human consumption. There is also the argument that modifying foods genetically is intrinsically wrong. Mother Nature is very smart, why interfere with what she intended? There would have to be a lot of very clever marketing to convince parents that milk engineered in this way would be safe for and beneficial to babies.
Looking at this from a ‘lactivist’ point of view, it is hard to see the benefit of this kind of research. Surely, the time and effort (and money) being poured into changing the genetic makeup of these ‘guinea pig’ goats should be focused towards helping mothers feel able to give their babies human milk. What is so wrong about empowering women and arming them with correct information and support, so that their babies can receive the milk which nature intended them to have? The milk that, no matter how hard they try, scientists will never ever be able to artificially produce?
The answer is simple — money. There is very little money to be made from breastfeeding. It is free, 99.99% of women are physically capable of doing it, it is absolutely perfect for each individual baby and nothing can compare to it. Money poured into advertising the wonders of breastmilk and the dangers of formula would not get much of a return. Plus, the companies who make millions from their milk and milk products would lose out.
What worries me is that this GM milk monstrosity may become what formula became when it first came on the scene all those years ago. Women went to their doctors and asked for medications to dry up their milk supply and for recommendations on which commercial infant formula to use. They were convinced by the companies marketing these products that their own milk was inferior to their formula milks. Breastfeeding became almost non-existent in western culture, with formula feeding taking its place as the ‘norm’.
Nowadays, things have improved somewhat. Most people are aware that the first priority of formula milk companies is making money, not their health or that of their babies. Governments all over the world are starting to pour funding into breastfeeding promotion and support. Rules are getting tighter on formula companies, making it harder for them to advertise their products. We have a long way to go, but the world is starting to come back around to the idea that Nature Knows Best, and that she always has.
I fear that this new technology could attempt to eradicate all of the hard work gone to over decades by mothers, doctors and non-profit organisations like La Leche League to bring breastfeeding back as not just an acceptable way to feed babies, but the best way.
What do you think? Would you feed your baby this GM goats milk? How do you think these technological advances could affect mother’s decisions over how they feed their babies?