08/10/2012 07:03 EDT | Updated 10/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Genetically Modified Breast Milk...From a Cow?


It started out as a joke. Whenever my wife and I were in the States after closing time up here, we'd visit a U.S. grocery store for a few supplies, and I'd always check the big milk containers to see which brands contained rBST.

"Real men drink Monsanto milk," she says.

In case you don't know, rBST is recombinant bovine somatotropin, a growth hormone administed to cows to force them to produce more milk. The practice was developed by Monsanto with its Posilac rBST brand, and it works quite well at increasing milk production and farm profits. It also happens to make the cows sick.

Cows treated with rBST develop mastitis, a swelling of the udder that produces pus, which, of course, gets into the milk supply. This is not a particularly appealing prospect, especially when one is picturing this as one reads the labels on the milk jugs on the shelf.

Unfortunately, traces of the hormones remain in the milk and are transferred to us. Not only that, rBST milk is not quite like regular milk, and this complicates things a bit. Like the fact that Monsanto milk contains a whole lot more natural growth factor (called IGF-1) which is easily absorbed by the human gut. And research has shown that high levels of IGF-1 are implicated in a rise in breast, colon and prostate cancers. Not only that, but high levels of IGF-1 block our natural defenses against early stage microscopic cancers.

And if that were not bad enough, the same cows treated with Prosilac are almost always treated with antibiotics to suppress infections like mastitis, and those antibiotics are transferred to us in the milk.

I can see that you're starting to rethink the idea of buying cheaper milk in the U.S. Me too. Breastfeeding women, I've read, should be particularly cautious. Personally, I'd speculate that a mother drinking a tall glass of Monsanto milk is a higher risk to her newborn than if she drinks a glass of wine. Then again, I'm no research clinician.

Of course, some modern science seems to contradict that caution. I just read that the Chinese are modifying cow's milk to produce human breast milk. "It's good," said worker Jiang Yao. "It's better for you because it's genetically modified," in a quote from a piece on the Natural Society website.

The article goes on to say:

"Chinese scientists have genetically modified dairy cows to produce human breast milk, and hope to be selling it in supermarkets within three years. The milk produced by the transgenic cows is identical to the human variety, with the same immune-boosting and antibacterial qualities as breast milk, scientists at China's Agricultural University in Beijing said.

"The transgenic herd of 300 was bred by inserting human genes into cloned cow embryos which were then implanted into surrogate cows. The technology used was similar to that used to produce Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned by scientists, in Scotland.

"The milk is still undergoing safety tests, but with government permission it will be sold to consumers as a more nutritious dairy drink than cow's milk."

Well, that's reassuring. But here's the thin edge of the ethical wedge in a Chinese scientist's own words: "There are 1.5 billion people in the world who don't get enough to eat," he said. "It's our duty to develop science and technology, not to hold it back. We need to feed people first, before we consider ideals and convictions."

I don't know what I could possibly add that you're not already thinking.

Ironically, correspondent Michael McCarthy reported in The Independent back in 1999 that Monsanto had removed genetically modified foods from one of its cafeterias in England, thanks to an enterprising catering supply firm. But it turned out it was just a tiny exception to the Monsanto rule of making GM food available to all, whether we like it or not.

Which is happening to our field crops whether we like it or not. Genetically modified Monsanto seed has now contaminated seed stocks across North America, from alfalfa and canola to beets. According to research in Poland, it is also happening to honeybees that have been fed GM corn syrup. Apparently, the syrup has altered the bees' DNA and threatened their survival. Fortunately, to rectify the situation, Monsanto bought out the bee research firm, so problem solved.

Closer to home, potatoes have been targets for genetic modification since the mid-90s. Though it regarded GM potatoes as "good science," McCain Foods stopped buying GM back it 1999 due to public perception. We'll have to see how that works out for everyone.

Meanwhile, I think we should encourage real men, and real women, too -- especially senior bankers, agribusiness and pharmaceuticals CEOs -- drink more Monsanto milk and eat more GM food. After all, a court in Ohio ruled that rBST milk is at least as good as, if not better than, regular milk. So I figure what's good enough for them will be good for the rest of us.

As for me, I guess I'll keep reading the sketchy food labels when shopping in the U.S. and resist the urge to "man up."