Agriculture

Mother’s milk

Fancy a pint of human milk?

Has China invented ‘mothers’ milk’? The nation’s scientists are forecasting that human milk could be sold in supermarkets in as little as two years.

Xinhua reports that a herd of 200 cows has been genetically modified to produce dairy that contains the characteristics of human milk. Li Ning, a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Engineering told the China Daily the new technique would mean “healthy protein contained in human milk is affordable for ordinary consumers.”

Li thinks the milk will be popular with consumers, since human milk contains nutrients that are beneficial for the body’s immunity, as well as the central nervous system.

It could also appeal to wealthier consumers. “In ancient China, only the emperor and the empress could drink human milk throughout their lives,” comments Li. “It was believed to be the height of opulence.”

The GM herd was issued with a bio-safety examination certificate last year, and lab tests over the next two years from the Department of Agriculture will determine if it’s safe to sell to the public. Still, Li fears that bureaucracy could slow the commercialisation of the new product, and that it could be 10 years before it reaches supermarket shelves.

Just as well, some sceptics might counter. As regular readers of WiC will recall, China’s track record in traditional dairy is pretty dreadful. In 2008 dairy farmers were revealed to be adulterating their product with melamine to improve profits. The resulting powder killed six infants and made 300,000 more ill. Since then additional cases of melamine contamination have resurfaced sporadically.

Rather than launching new milk strains, the industry might be better advised to get more of its core products in order. Besides, it will be a major challenge to convince a general public long since inured to official announcements that China’s milk is safe to drink. The scepticism shows no signs of subsiding. We reported in WiC95 that Macau saw a run on milk powder over Lunar New Year, as the shelves were emptied of the foreign brands that Chinese mothers trust to be safer.

In that respect, a ‘cutting edge’ dairy product resembling human milk but derived from complex biological processes might struggle to convince all but the bravest of shoppers.


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