The first genetically modified cows approved by the US Food and Drug Administration were simple creatures. They removed the susceptibility that cows have to Mad Cow Disease and have been incredibly popular.
“More than 35% of US cows were sourced from Hematech by the end of 2008. Not bad for a product introduced eight months earlier,” grins James Robl, president of Hematech, a biotech company. The public has been ecstatic and beef is enjoying unprecedented levels of demand. Now Monsanto has entered the field with their new GM cow.
“We are releasing a cow that produces a combination of proteins that fight both obesity and cancer,” says Geoff Goldbloom, spokesperson for Monsanto. “The proteins become active in cooked meat and act in two ways. Firstly, they prevent the absorption of a large percentage of the fat normally found in beef. Secondly, they absorb many of the free-radicals produced in the cooking process which may lead to cancer.”
McDonalds has announced that they are switching exclusively to the new beef as a service to their customers – and to fight charges leveled at them that they are responsible for the high levels of obesity in the US.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
In 1985 farmers in Britain reported a peculiar ailment affecting their cows. In 1986, the disease-causing prion was identified and named “bovine spongiform encephalopathy” or BSE. Scientists believed that cattle contracted the disease by eating animal feed made up of bone and meat remnants from sheep. By 1989 this form of feed mix had been removed from the market. The exact mechanism of transfer is poorly understood and prions continued to spread. By 1990, there were 14,324 confirmed cases out of an estimated population of 10 million cattle in Great Britain.
In 1996 scientists announced that there may be a link between BSE and a similar fatal brain disease in humans, known as Creutzfeldt – Jakob Disease (CJD). Britain’s US$ 7.5 billion beef industry collapsed.
In December of 2003, the first case of Mad Cow Disease was reported in the United States. 4,000 cattle on the ranch had to be destroyed. Prions continue to sporadically emerge all over the world and result in immediate and dramatic culling of effected livestock.
2000: Spiders and Transgenic Goats
In 1998, Nexia – a biotech firm – had produced Willow, a transgenic goat engineered to produce a therapeutic human protein. In the pursuit of a marketable product they followed up in 2000 with the first transgenic goats to produce spider-silk in their milk. The silk is significantly stronger and lighter than either stainless steel or Kevlar and, in partnership with the US Army, they introduce a line of spider-silk bullet proof vests. “The medical uses are even more inspiring: tendons, ligaments, bandages and surgical thread are being made from spider-silk,” says Costas Karatzas, Nexia’s Vice President of Research and Development.
Since the goats are not aimed at the food-market there are no concerns as to their safety. The shear cost of each animal means that they are unlikely to be confused with regular goats. However, the door to transgenic livestock is open. A few companies start secretly sniffing the air to see whether there may be a market for other transgenic animals.
2002: Remapping the Cow
“We are now at the cusp of some breakthroughs in animal science that will offer enormous business opportunities,” says Clifton Baile, the CEO of ProLinia, a genomics startup company, and a professor of animal science at the University of Georgia. This immediately after the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the beef, pork and poultry industry is roughly a US$ 100 billion market. Companies like Pyxis Genomics, Inimex Pharmaceuticals and Anigenetics are identifying genes for increased muscle growth, genes that fight viruses and bacteria, cows that produce more milk. The market for genetic mapping is vast as farmers attempt to gain greater efficiency from their farms to keep ahead of increasingly fussy consumer preferences.
2004: Fishy Low-fat Cows
Omega-3 fatty acids emerge as the new “healthy” fat that reduces cholesterol and improves health, and even brain development in children. Mothers rush to the stores to buy Omega-3 tablets. Fish are rich in this form of oil but mammals on a normal diet are unable to produce it in large concentrations.
The backlash against fast-food also focuses attention on the Omega-6 fats produced by cows. A Harvard team announces research in which nematode worm genes are inserted into mice which result in omega-3 fats being produced instead of omega-6.
Dr Harry Griffin, from the Roslin Institute – which pioneered the production of “transgenic” animals – is not convinced of the use of this product. “It’s a bit of a non-starter. The kind of people who are demanding omega-3 rich foods are probably those who would not eat anything taken from a transgenic animal. There are other ways of achieving the same effect in livestock without the financial risk and difficulty.”
The power and limitations of genetic engineering become apparent. Everything is possible but the public are skeptical. It would be best if all this ingenuity can be put to use combating problems that are terrifying and where the products are popular with both the public and farmers.
2006: Goats out but Cows in
2006 turns out to be a mixed year for transgenic animals.
In February GTC Biotherapeutics, based in the US, has their request to licence their transgenic goat turned down by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The goat produces Atryn in their milk. The drug is an anti-clotting agent used by the 1 in 5,000 who are born missing the anti-thrombin gene which leaves them vulnerable to blood clots. There is no synthetic version of the protein on the market and it is currently isolated from human blood plasma. With the global concern about Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease doctors are unwilling to expose patients to the ongoing risk of exposure to human blood plasma. However, the EMA is unconvinced and turns the license down.
In December Hematech, a unit of Japan’s Kirin Brewery Co., announces that they have bred cows without prion protein receptors which renders them immune to mad-cow disease. At this time the brain-wasting illness, which is fatal to cows, has been linked to almost 200 human deaths in the past decade. The cow itself confers no immunity on the people who eat it – it is not meant to be a drug – but it does end the transmission pathway from animals to humans.
2008: Beef is back on the menu
The US Food and Drug Administration is quick to certify Hematech cows as safe for human consumption at the end of 2007. With local farmers screaming that they stand to lose billions if a solution isn’t found to mad-cow disease, the FDA has little alternative. Pressure groups are angry, but a last-minute deal sees transgenic beef being specifically labeled in stores.
At first nervous about the labeling, retailers start demanding transgenic beef faster than they can breed as consumer demand escalates. If ever proof was needed that consumers will buy transgenic foods where they feel their own health will be enhanced, this is it.
Biotech companies are ecstatic and swiftly move pet projects to commercialization. Monsanto immediately begins seeking acquisition opportunities.
2009: Beef, the healthy alternative
Innovations come thick and fast. Many cancers are dietary related as a result of free radicals released during the cooking process. There is no cure for cancer – yet – but biotech firms are looking at ways to reduce the harmful by-products released in food processing.
In March, Anigenetics – recently acquired by Monsanto – announces that they have produced a transgenic cow that contains a protein that damps down on free-radicals produced during cooking. A license agreement with Hematech sees the gene for prion resistance incorporated. Genetic products start taking on similar proportions to the software industry with different bits of code incorporated into single vehicles.
Dr Jing Kang, who at Harvard had first identified mechanisms to convert omega-6 fats to omega-3 in mice, moves to Monsanto in April. His team quickly develops a simpler process to reduce the fat available for absorption from mammals.
In December, at a crowded press conference, the directors of McDonalds and Monsanto announce a joint deal. Henceforth McDonalds in the US will stock beef produced by Monsanto cows. It will be low fat and reduce the incidence of cancer.
It is a brave stand and McDonalds realize that it will be many years before such a product will be popular in Europe.