Critical, but willing to drink: Consumers’ perspectives on the use of advanced breeding methods in dairy production
Danish consumers are concerned about advanced breeding methods in dairy production. However, a new research study has found that they are willing to drink the milk as long as the methods have not been used directly on the cattle producing it, but instead on animals further back in the breeding chain.
How do Danish consumers feel about advanced breeding methods in dairy cattle – for instance, where the insemination is done in petri dishes and the embryos are chosen using genomic data and then transplanted into cows? Specifically, how willing are consumers to drink milk from dairy cattle where such methods have been used?
That is what Associate Professors Thomas Bøker Lund, Christian Gamborg and Professor Peter Sandøe from the Department of Food and Resource Economics have investigated, together with a veterinary colleague. The study, which has been published in Journal of Dairy Science, shows that Danish milk consumers are critical of technologically advanced cattle breeding when asked at a more general level. However, only one in five was unwilling to drink milk from dairy cows bred with semen derived from breeding programmes using genetic editing and cloning in earlier generations of bulls, where egg transplants were used to make dairy cows pregnant.
“Looking at the consumers’ attitude towards these new breeding methods, such as embryo transfer and cloning, you’d think the technologies could never get off the ground. Many consumers are against them. But when they were asked whether they would drink the end product – milk – their answer was different,” says Thomas Bøker Lund, first author of the study.
“This suggests that many consumers don’t worry about manipulation of food, as long as the manipulation took place some way back in the chain of production, during breeding, and was not applied to the specific food product they are consuming. And that is, by and large, how these technologies will be used in the case of dairy cow breeding. Typically, they’re used on the cow’s ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather.’ The intervention occurs at a reassuring distance from the milk the consumer later drinks.”
Elite cows in petri dishes
This finding is especially interesting, since new biotechnologies look set to introduce a variety of breeding possibilities that could have a significant effect on the cattle industry of the future. They may, for example, give us cows that emit less methane. However, this would require consumers to accept food products where biotechnologies have been used in the breeding programme.
“A degree of manipulation is already common in the industry,” says Peter Sandøe. “A large majority of calves are now bred with artificial insemination, and often the semen is sex-sorted, so it’s decided beforehand that the calves will be female. At the same time, particular bulls and cows are chosen for breeding based on analyses of their genomes to secure heightened disease resistance or increased production efficiency, including milk production, per cow – or other traits deemed desirable.”
“If we’re thinking about efficiency, it’s clear that the more this type of manipulation is used, the more milk per cow is produced. A modern dairy cow produces over 10,000 litres of milk a year – more than double what they produced 50 years ago. That has happened partly as a result of new breeding technologies.”
The study was conducted as part of the social science contribution to the research project EliteOva, funded by Innovation Fund Denmark, which seeks to improve cattle breeding with the help of biotechnology. EliteOva’s groundbreaking breeding method involves flushing eggs from cows with desirable traits and inseminating them with sperm from highly prized bulls in petri dishes. Following this, the embryos’ genomes are analysed to check the likelihood that they have desirable traits such as high milk yield, a good distribution of fat and protein, robust health, and reduced methane emissions. The embryos with the best combinations of these traits are then selected and transplanted into donor cows.
“Scepticism about the technology could prove challenging,” explains Christian Gamborg. “If consumers distrust this type of intervention, it will be difficult for producers to bank on it – even if it has the potential to increase efficiency and improve health and climate-related traits. That is why it was important for us to examine, not just the consumers’ attitude towards the technologies, but also their willingness to drink the milk.”
However, nearly as many respondents refused to drink milk derived from natural insemination as respondents who refused to drink milk derived from the EliteOva breeding method in the study – indicating that the technology is not an issue.
A question of gradual habituation
The research study involved a consumer questionnaire with over 2,000 Danish respondents. The respondents were informed about five different, and increasingly advanced, breeding methods: natural insemination; artificial insemination; artificial insemination based on genomic analysis; breeding of selected bulls and cows in petri dishes; and finally, gene editing and cloning. They were then asked for their views on the breeding methods, and whether they would be willing to drink milk from cows produced via each of the five breeding methods.
The researchers speculate that, to a large extent, the lack of concern towards drinking milk from the different breeding methods is connected to “distance” – both in the breeding chain itself and in the time it takes to become accustomed to something new. This pattern has been seen before in new developments in the food industry.
“We saw scepticism among farmers back in the day when artificial insemination started to be used in cattle breeding,” Peter Sandøe points out. “We saw even bigger and broader scepticism when Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1987, and when researchers started to genetically engineer crops. It cannot be ruled out that, at some point, people will have heard so much about these technologies that the methods become ‘demystified’ and scepticism starts to wane. They might even become the new normal. It is also possible that the genetic tools used in human biotechnology, such as human medicine, will support this process of demystification, but we have not yet looked into that.”
Perhaps the more meaningful interpretation of the results is that the “distance” between the technological manipulation and the consumer end-product matters. “Future dairy cows will acquire traits such as the ability to produce even more milk, even greater resilience to disease, and perhaps lower methane emissions – traits introduced before the cows are conceived. The cow delivering the milk is not itself being tampered with. However, in the end, it is not us, but the dairy farmers and dairy industry that must decide how far they want to go with new biotechnology,” says Peter Sandøe.
Read the full study here.
Thomas Bøker Lund, Associate Professor
Christian Gamborg, Associate Professor
Peter Sandøe, Professor
Thomas Sten Pedersen, Communications Officer
EliteOva is funded by Innovation Fund Denmark.