The just published report on GE Animals in New Zealand paints a very negative picture of AgResearch's endeavours over the last 15 years in producing genetically engineered cattle. However, before dismissing this as yet another "anti-GE" exercise, it is worth delving a little deeper.
First, why is there such antipathy between GE-Free New Zealand and AgResearch? Second, why has AgResearch put such a huge effort into this transgenic work, with so little return over 15 years, given the ongoing dire straits of the company?
The real antipathy between the two started in 2001 when the company proposed inserting the human myelin basic protein (hMBP) gene into cattle.
The justification was that the protein would have value as a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis. The proposal was supported by the pro-GE Life Sciences Network while GE-Free NZ opposed it.
The debate hotted up considerably when I went public and blew the whistle on AgResearch's claim that their proposal had medical value. The Life Sciences Network accused me of "ethically questionable actions" etc, and suggested that I be "subject to review" by my employer, the University of Waikato. At the same time, GE-Free NZ upped their opposition and felt that not even the scientific arguments advanced by AgResearch could be "trusted".
The medical facts were pretty clear. Numerous trials had already been carried out in the United States using hMBP and they were unsuccessful. Unbelievably, AgResearch, the Life Sciences Network and various supporters were either ignorant of this work, or chose to ignore it.
Even when Jeanette Fitzsimons outlined the science, or lack thereof, in Parliament there seemed to be collective silence from the establishment and eventually, the hMBP cattle application was approved.
Since that time, GE-Free NZ has criticised AgResearch year in, year out, but to some extent they have been flogging a dead horse. The so-called biopharming industry which held such promise 15 years ago has proved to be a financial disaster for a number of high powered scientific companies and, to date, only two milk-derived pharmaceuticals are in clinical use. The Life Sciences Network, which was a great champion of this kind of biotechnology, seems to have gone into recess.
Nevertheless, GE-Free NZ is to be congratulated in assembling for the first time a comprehensive list of all the transgenic cattle produced by AgResearch. Clearly, a world-class group of scientists have used cutting edge technologies to create six types of transgenic cattle. Equally clearly, very few of these cattle survive today and none appear to be of commercial or medical value, although undoubtedly much scientific interest has been gleaned from the experimentation.
Where GE-Free NZ let themselves down in the report is not distinguishing between the animal welfare issues that arise from the genetic manipulation, as opposed to the cloning of cattle per se. AgResearch is a world leader in cloning cattle and has been quite open about both the inefficiencies and animal welfare issues that arise when using this technique.
This leads us to the second question. Why has AgResearch put such a huge effort into this research for so long? Coupled with the cloning work, the total cost must be many tens of millions of dollars.
One imagines that in the early days, the research proposals would have projected returns of hundreds of millions of dollars to the company if a successful bio-pharmaceutical could be developed. And possibly similar arguments, although involving much lower returns, would be used in justifying the production of transgenic farm animals with enhanced milk for the dairy industry, or for producing clones of elite cattle.
But it must have been clear to AgResearch many years ago that they were on a hiding to nowhere. The human pharmaceutical projects have not gone well, while the NZ dairy industry did not want a bar of transgenic cows in any form; they would be a disaster to their clean, green image. And even "normal" cloned cattle are a no-no at the moment.
So where to for AgResearch transgenic farm animals from here? My understanding is that the transgenic/cloning group has been downsized to just a few scientists as part of the latest restructuring. Perhaps it is time for a bit of "rightsizing" as well, and this talented group of researchers moved to a more suitable environment, such as a university, so AgResearch can stick to its core business.
This may not placate GE-Free NZ but it might allow for a freer exchange with the scientists doing the work.
Emeritus Professor Dick Wilkins carried out GE animal research in the 1990s at AgResearch, Ruakura and the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Waikato.