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GM Calf Research Ignores Ethical Problems, Raises Safety Concerns

Immediate release (3 Oct 2012)

Calls to: Pete Riley, GM Freeze 07903 341 065

The announcement of the genetic modification and cloning of a dairy cow in New Zealand [1] raises serious doubts about the safety and efficacy of the technology employed for the experiments and ignores key ethical questions about animal welfare and use of research funding.

Scientists at Hamilton University genetically modified dairy cows using microRNAs to switch off, or “silence”, the gene that controls the production of the milk protein β-lactoglobulin (BLG), to which some infants are allergic.

The use of microRNA in genetic modification is only just emerging in laboratories, and the results of this experiment reveal serious problems with the GM techniques employed. For example the only surviving viable female calf was, “[U]nexpectedly…born without a tail,” which calls into the question the predictability of the GM technique and concern about what other unintended effects have yet to be discovered. [2]

In addition other scientists have confirmed that microRNAs can survive in the digestive tract and be absorbed into the blood and organs after consuming products genetically modified in this way. [3] This leads to worries that normal gene functions may be affected if the results of these experiments are eaten. [4] Other problems have emerged with the technique, including in Australian studies on wheat examining the possible disruption of the production of glycogen – a starch used to provide sudden energy bursts in mammals. [5]

Cloning is also riddled with ethical problems. [6] It is hugely controversial in Europe, and the European Parliament voted in July 2010 for a full ban on all cloning and use of cloned offspring for food. A report by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) [7] concluded:

Considering the current level of suffering and health problems of surrogate dams and animal clones, the Group has doubts as to whether cloning for food is justified…At present, the EGE does not see convincing arguments to justify the production of food from clones and their offspring.

The Hamilton University researchers report that cloning showed a typically poor success rate in this experiment. Only 5 out of 57 attempts was successful, and of four pregnancies only one produced a live female calf (which had to be, “[D]elivered by caesarian section on day 255 of gestation after being diagnosed with hydroallantois.”) [8]

Other animal welfare concerns include hormonally-inducing the GM calf to produce milk at the age of 7 months. Normally dairy cows produce their first calf at around 24 months.

Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

The researchers in New Zealand have overstepped the mark and their research should be suspended on any of several grounds.

First and foremost the public do not want GM animals or clones in the food chain because they quite rightly see the techniques as cruel, unpredictable and unnecessary. The EU Parliament voted for a full ban on cloning to support the public’s wishes, but the Commission insists it is not possible. We cannot imagine parents feeding milk from cloned GM cows to their children, so this research funding should be spent on something more productive.”

The researchers express the surprise that the only surviving calf has no tail. In normal circumstance and unintended outcome like this would halt research to try to ascertain why this happened, what other hidden changes might have occurred and determine if they could cause additional welfare, or even food safety, problems. We hope that is done here.

Major scientific concerns about the overall safety of GM animals for food include particular questions about using the techniques employed in this research. This shows how unpredictable GM is, and should sound a clear warning for consumers.

Research on GM animals needs to be reined in. If scientists won’t do it themselves, then politicians need to insist on a global moratorium.




[1] Jabed A, et al, 2012. “Targeted microRNA Expression in Dairy Cattle Directs Production of β-lactoglobulin-free, High-casein Milk”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

[2] Jabed A, et al, 2012, Page 3.

[3] [4] and [5] Heinemann JA, 2012. “Evaluation of Risks from Creation of Novel RNA Molecules in Genetically Engineered Wheat Plants and Recommendations for Risk Assessment”. Centre for Integrated Research in Bio-safety (pdf download 300KB)

[6] GM Freeze, 31 December 2008. Clones in the food chain: They are there, but we don’t know where and 1 January 2011 Update on Cloning of Animals for Food Production.

[7] European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies, 2008. Ethical aspects of animal cloning for food supply – Opinion No 23.

[8] Jabed A, et al, 2012. See supporting information.

Note: Hydroallantois is a condition caused by a defective placenta resulting in an abnormal accumulation of fluid around the embryo and is often fatal to the mother.