GE Free New Zealand is strongly opposing AgResearch's use of genetic modification in pursuit of allergen-free milk for children.
Crown research institute AgResearch has announced a world-first breakthrough in genetic modification research, with the goal of producing hypoallergenic (low allergy) milk.
It has bred a genetically modified cloned calf producing milk in early trials with greatly reduced amounts of a protein known as beta-lactoglobulin (BLG), believed to be the leading cause of milk allergies in children.
The 11-month-old calf, Daisy, is in containment at AgResearch's Ruakura site in Hamilton.
She has a mysterious missing tail which AgResearch expects to know the cause of in a couple of weeks but believes is not linked to genetic modification.
GE Free New Zealand president Claire Bleakley said cows without the protein BLG was a "frightening development not a breakthrough".
"This is a depraved macabre experiment that is the worst type of animal cruelty."
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Bleakley called on the New Zealand Ethics Board to shut down the research "immediately".
"AgResearch after 12 years of failure and hundreds of dead embryos has developed one calf, expressing less [BLG] than normal milk cows.
''BLG is an essential part of milk. It lowers blood pressure ... It is essential for healthy digestion, immune system function and the formation of healthy bones skin, teeth and muscle development."
The research was not needed as technology to remove BLG already existed, she said, providing a ''highly successful business'' with BLG removed from skim milk, cheese and butter.
Bleakley said AgResearch's experiments raised many questions including how many other calf embryos had been involved in the research and what had happened to them.
"Were they born deformed, euthanised at birth or aborted by the surrogate mothers? Did the mothers die in pregnancy or birthing?
"Why do they have no tail? This calf is deformed and will possibly suffer from long term skeletal deformities, as BLG is an essential part of the cow's make up."
The Government should ask if the work was essential to humankind and what it would do to the economic viability of major exports, Bleakley said.
"When research is used for such cruelty then exporters may choose to buy milk commodities elsewhere further worsening our farmers' plight.
World-leading quality of science
New Zealand AgResearch Chief Executive Dr Tom Richardson has called the findings, "tremendously significant".
The research is being published in the prestigious American science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
"PNAS is one of the top journals in the world, and to be published in it reflects the world-leading quality of the science behind this discovery. This will be one of the top-ranking science publications from New Zealand this year," he said.
AgResearch's research director Dr Warren McNabb said AgResearch was doing further experiments to confirm whether Daisy's milk was hypoallergenic and could eventually be produced and marketed as such.
Research to date involved inducing the calf to milk and next steps included getting her in calf so she could milk naturally, so that milk could be tested.
"If we can see similar results in another lactation, we suddenly have cows' milk without what everyone believes is the main allergen in cow's milk," he said.
Before the milk could be tasted by humans, tested in clinical trials on humans or produced commercially, New Zealand's genetic modification policies would need to change, McNabb said.
Dr Stefan Wagner, a researcher, said that in the future, the basic process of using designer microRNAs to target other genes could provide an efficient tool to change additional livestock traits.
Wagner said that the findings may eventually be able to produce animals with enhanced disease resistance and/or improved lactation performance.
"This is the real discovery component to this project, and Daisy provides us with the opportunity to answer a lot of those questions," said Wagner.
Rsearchers now want to breed Daisy with a normal cow to see what sort of cow and milk results.
Daisy is under lock and key at AgResearch, and cannot be moved or transported anywhere under New Zealand's genetic modification laws.