China, Inc: Cows that produce "human" milk?

A statue depicting a dairy cow dressed in Chinese Qipao in Chongqing, China on December 2, 2008.

China's busy and entrepreneurial geneticists are at it again.

This time, they've reportedly genetically modified 300 dairy cows to allow them to produce "human" breast milk.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, the scientists have inserted human genes into the cows that gives their milk the same beneficial properties as human breast milk — such as extra nutrients to help fight infections and boost a (human) baby's immune system.

Professor Ning Li, director of the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at the China Agricultural University who led the research, told the Telegraph that the GM (genetically-modified) milk would be as safe to drink as the regular stuff, though it has a slightly different taste:

"The milk tastes stronger than normal milk," he reportedly said. “We aim to commercialize some research in this area in coming three years. For the 'human-like milk,' 10 years or maybe more time will be required to finally pour this enhanced milk into the consumer’s cup.”

The Chinese scientists also told the Telegraph they have "boosted milk fat content by around 20 percent and have changed the levels of milk solids, making it closer to the composition of human milk."

The scientists hope to offer the GM milk as an alternative to human breast milk, as well as an alternative to baby formulas now on the market:

Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, Li added the “human-like milk” would provide “much higher nutritional content." He said they had managed to produce three generations of GM cows but for commercial production there would need to be large numbers of cows produced. “Human milk contains the ‘just right’ proportions of protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins for an infant’s optimal growth and development. As our daily food, the cow’s milk provided us the basic source of nutrition. But the digestion and absorption problems made it not the perfect food for human being."

China is already a leader in the booming, yet controversial, global GM food industry.

According to the journal Science, China is developing more GM crops of any country outside North America, including "rice, wheat, potatoes and peanuts."

Chinese scientists are also working on "disease-resistant wheat and cold-tolerant tomatoes," the Telegraph said in a 2002 report on the topic. Some 2,000 scientists in China are thought to be working on more than 50 species of GM plants using 120 different genes, the Telegraph adds.