Can Genetically Modified Cows Produce Allergy-Free Milk?

Scientists in New Zealand say they've created a cow that makes hypoallergenic milk. But are their claims too good to be true?

(Photo: Getty Images)
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Got milk allergies? Then New Zealand may have a Franken-cow that’s right for you!

Researchers at the University of Waikato say they have come up with a way to tinker with bovine DNA and engineer cows to produce “hypoallergenic” milk, according to ABC News.

The scientists essentially selected for genes that would cause the cows to make less BLG, a protein in cow milk to which two to three percent of the general population is allergic.

MORE: 18 Companies That Oppose GMO Food Labeling

Milk allergies are, of course, far more serious than your garden-variety lactose intolerance. For those who are allergic to milk, reactions can range from hives to difficulty breathing, vomiting, and diarrhea. (Milk allergies mostly affect young children, who typically outgrow them by age three.)

But don’t expect hypoallergenic milk to appear in your local dairy aisle any time soon. Stateside critics of the Kiwis’ work point out that while the GMO cows did produce far less BLG, that specific protein is probably not the one that causes milk allergy sufferers the most trouble in the first place.

“Casein, actually, is the major milk protein that we believe causes most of the severe milk allergies,” Dr. Scott Sicherer, a professor and researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, tells ABC.

And, in fact, as BLG levels dropped in the cows’ milk in the study, levels of casein actually rose.

Of course, the mutant Kiwi cows are only the latest headline-maker in the controversial scientific quest to genetically engineer “better” cows—and frankly, they’re not even the creepiest.

That dubious honor probably goes to Chinese researchers, who last year announced they had created a mutant herd of 300 dairy cows capable of producing “human” milk. (Air quotes abound in trying to write about genetic engineering.)

In that case, human DNA was implanted in the embryos of cattle, which when raised to maturity, were capable of producing milk that contained lysozyme and lactoferrin, two proteins that protect human infants from infection.

The Chinese are also reportedly working on building a tastier steak through genetic modification. In August, scientists said they had created two cloned cows that had been given an extra gene to increase the amount of fat in their muscles. It won’t be until the cows are slaughtered that the researchers will know whether they succeeded in doing in the lab what the Japanese have be perfecting for centuries with their famed kobe and wagyu beef. (Which makes us wonder: do these scientists all get together for a cookout or something? A blind taste test? Is there beer involved?)

While the idea of playing God just to get a fattier steak is exactly the sort of GMO horror story to inflame the eco-conscious opposition, what should we make of attempts by Canadian scientists to breed genetically modified cows that burp less? Seems silly at first, until you realize that all those belching cows are burping out methane, which, in turn, is second only to CO2 in causing global warming.

Franken-cows or a tropical Arctic...welcome to the future.

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