Mother's milk

Rebecca TurnerCountryman

Genetically modified (GM) dairy cows in China are being bred by scientists to produce ‘human’ milk.

The cows, which produce the human protein lysozyme, were created by implanting genetically modified embryos into surrogate cows.

Lysozyme is found in human breast milk and helps to boost the immunity of babies.

The scientists believe their research, published last month in the Public Library of Science One journal, could lead to an alternative for infant formula or breast milk.

Dairy Futures CRC chief executive David Nation said Australia’s dairy industry had looked at this type of technology five years ago.

However, Dr Nation said the research was scrapped because of unresolved technical and ethical issues.

“It is not new work to make a difference to cow’s milk,” Dr Nation said. “This research will continue in China. At this stage, the journal is only describing the discovery.”

Dr Nation said the discovery would not have an impact on Australia’s larger dairy markets, such as cheese and fresh milk products.

However, he said it could create an important niche market, particularly in countries like China where such products could be of nutritional benefit to children.

Western Dairy chairman and Harvey dairy farmer Dale Hanks said he was not surprised by the scientific discovery given it was occurring in China, but he did not believe production would take-off in Australia.

He said to make it viable in Australia, a substantial premium would be needed for farmers to convert their herds to produce that type of milk.

“It would be that small a market,” he said. “Let’s face it, who wants to drink human milk?”

Turning his attention to WA, Mr Hanks said most dairy farmers were anxious for a better season.

“While milk prices should be better, the season has dealt the biggest blow this year,” he said.

Mr Hanks said ex-Challenge Dairy suppliers had been the most affected, because they were being paid well below the cost of production.

He said some producers were on a “knife’s edge”, and others were considering changing to beef.

“Those that are left in the industry are dinkum about the future of dairy, but if you can’t make a profit, you can’t keep doing it,” he said.

Mr Hanks said many Challenge and Fonterra producers had sold heifers this year to increase their cash flow, which would result in a drop in milk supply.

“Hopefully, this may result in some sensibility in milk pricing,” he said.

“If supply drops, we’re unlikely to see the silly tendering for pricing that is occurring because of the Coles and Woolworths war on milk.”

Meanwhile, Mr Hanks fears nothing will come of the Federal inquiry into milk pricing.

“The most frustrating part is that it devalues our product,” he said.

“There is a lot of hard work that goes into producing milk, and for it to be worth less than a litre of water or petrol is disheartening.”

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails