Fears cloned cow Daisy is udderly useless milker
Daisy, the cloned cow born of a $50 million investment, risks becoming a white elephant because people have no appetite for GM milk.
Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry said the publicly funded research that allowed the multimillion-dollar laboratory creation of AgResearch's friesian calf could be "a bridge to nowhere".
But despite the Sustainability Council's concerns about the $50 million spent on genetically modified (GM) cattle and cloning, AgResearch said the work was still "basic science" and looking at market opportunities was not a priority at this stage.
Daisy, who is tailless, was unleashed on the world by the Crown research institute a month ago. She was introduced in a blaze of publicity as the first cow on the planet that produces milk with reduced amounts of a protein that can cause allergies.
AgResearch said last week it was continuing to produce cloned embryos like Daisy to find out the cause of her taillessness, which seemed a naturally occurring defect rather than one caused by GM experimentation.
It also said it had now created another embryo like Daisy, but with a tail, using the same cloning process.
The Sustainability Council - a research and advocacy group focused on emerging technologies and issues relating to sustainable development, such as GM - has been investigating the AgResearch and other GM research programmes.
Terry told the Sunday Star-Times it appeared the work on GM cattle and cloning had "consumed $50m of taxpayer funds on projects that after 13 years had yet to deliver a single commercial product".
From 1996 to 2010, public funding for GM and cloning work was $50.76m, including $24.95m on a "reprogramming cells into cloned animals" project between 2003 and 2009, and $7.14m for study into "new and novel products through reproductive and transgenic technologies" from 2000 to 2002.
A 2011 European Commission poll that reported high resistance to GM food products calculated support for GM food at 30 per cent and for cloned products support at only 18 per cent.
The poll said: "If ‘unnaturalness' is one of the problems associated with GM food, it appears to be an even greater concern in the case of animal cloning and food."
The prospects for commercialising any GM low-allergy milk were still far off, Terry said.
"A major challenge is that any cows that are bred from Daisy and retain the ability to produce the new milk will also be GM cattle. Regardless of whether there is a requirement to label that milk as coming from a GM cow, that is something consumers will come to know.
"If production is not to be scaled up this way, then what is AgResearch's plan?"
Terry pointed to a 2002 paper on milk and dairy products in the 21st century by members of Fonterra's research centre that said it "seemed unlikely that transgenic modification of milk [for nutrition] will occur in the foreseeable future".
The authors said because milk was targeted at the health of babies and young people it was "a very sensitive area . . . and milk will probably be one of the last foods in which genetic modification is accepted."
Terry said even as a specialist milk for people with allergies "the big question is whether New Zealand food producers would ever let it get off the ground, given its potential to tarnish the image of normal milk from New Zealand and the negative effects it could . . . have on the nation's clean green brand".
AgResearch Daisy project team leader Goetz Laible said the project had been a "proof of concept study" involving a specific milk protein.
"Because this is very much basic science, and will be for a considerable time to come, building a business case around possible market opportunities has not been a focus or priority.
"By default, new technologies have a component of the unknown and this initial unfamiliarity often evokes controversy. The production of Daisy has been a research project into the potential of a new technology which provides us with new knowledge and will support efforts to identify and assess future opportunities.
"This research has been dedicated to understanding the science. While it may provide options for our agricultural industries in the future, this is not about the development of food products," Laible said.
Green Party list MP and GM spokesman Steffan Browning said a tactic of the biotechnology industry was to hang GM work on what they believed would be a popular outcome.
"Trying to use low-allergen milk to win the public over is quite mischievous. It is typical. I went to their [bio-tech industry] conference in Rotorua and they were doing workshops around how you get trust into communities that are resistant to genetic engineering. I found that quite disturbing.
"It's heartstring stuff, thinking ‘OK, we'll pull on that as a way of getting buy-in'."
Federated Farmers national vice-president and science spokesman William Rolleston said if the hypoallergenic milk were developed it would "target a niche market and be produced as a completely separate product from conventional milk".
Dairy spokesman Willy Leferink said the development had been received positively in the international media. "We shouldn't run too far ahead of ourselves, however. Before it can be considered for commercialisation, hypoallergenic milk will require a lot more study and regulatory approval to ensure it is not only safe but works."
WHO IS DAISY? Daisy, AgResearch's 11-month-old cloned friesian calf, lives in containment at Ruakura near Hamilton and enjoys quasi-celebrity status in New Zealand's animal world. She was created in the same way as Dolly, the famous British sheep that was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell rather than an embryo. Daisy was bred by AgResearch scientists and hormonally induced to produce a milk with greatly reduced quantities of a milk-whey protein called beta-lactoglobulin (BLG), which can cause allergic reactions. Two to three per cent of infants are allergic to cow's milk and researchers say BLG allergies are largely responsible. Under New Zealand's genetic modification (GM) laws, Daisy's milk cannot be drunk to see if it is safe for human consumption. Federated Farmers is excited about the breakthrough, calling it a "major technological advance" that could add value to future milk exports. AgResearch wants to breed from Daisy to assess milk composition and yield from a natural lactation but does not see any practical, commercial applications in the short to medium-term. Anti-GM groups are vehemently opposed to cloning, question its cost and purpose, and point to European research showing food products from cloned animals are even less popular than GM food. They say dairy products from cloned cows would be highly unpopular. --------------------
Sunday Star Times