I wasn’t in the sharpest frame of mind on Saturday morning after a big night on the town in Auckland with some journalist friends the previous night.

However I couldn’t help but notice the headline screaming out from the front page of the New Zealand Herald frontpage as I passed an inner-city dairy.

The headline was in green – a first for the New Zealand Herald as far as I know. It came with the following shocking sub heading and standfirst:

Source: New Zealand Herald

Source: New Zealand Herald

Hangover forgotten, I promptly bought a copy of the Herald and devoured the front page story, which indeed was a good scoop for environment reporter Eloise Gibson, who received some interesting material from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry under the Official Information Act about genetic modification experiments Agresearch is carrying out. These transgenic experiments have already received a lot of public attention and involve putting human genetic material into cow cells to produce calves that have some human genetic traits.

As Gibson points out:

The scientists hoped that the genetic code, a human follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), would enable the cows that were produced to produce milk containing compounds that could be used as a human fertility treatment.

Under permits issued by the Environmental Risk Management Authority last month, AgResearch can put human genes into goats, sheep and cows for 20 years to see if the animals produce human proteins in their milk.

The proteins could eventually be used to treat human disorders.

Those couple of paragraphs sum up well the aims of the research. They come after an explanation of how three calves involved in a “bungled  experiment” at Agresearch’s Ruakura facility died after developing abnormally large ovaries.  The details are unpleasant – no one likes to hear about animals suffering and dying and the story will no doubt infuriate campaigners against animal testing.

Where’s the bungle here?

But what about the experiment was “bungled” or as One News put it on Saturday night, “botched”?

The Herald story goes on to reveal that the calves reared by Agresearch were, in the opinion of a MAF investigator “better cared for by vets at Ruakura than they would be on a standard dairy farm”. The state of the calves was reported to Agresearch’s animal ethics committee which told the company to monitor the calves. Agresearch was open with MAF about the problems the calves had developed. Agriculture Minister David Carter even got involved on hearing of the death of the calves and asked for information but was “satisfied with AgResearch’s response”.

So we have a case of cows dying in the course of genetic modification research, a result which scientists probably didn’t predict and were a bit puzzled by. But isn’t that the whole idea of an experiment? To test in a contained environment the effect of something that hasn’t been tried before. Isn’t that how numerous pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs and healthcare treatments have been tested in preparation for human consumption? How many lab rats, mice, dogs and pigs have died in the testing of the shampoo we use, the drugs we take, the food and drink we consume?

Were those deaths the result of bungled experiments? Possibly. But animals die in the course of animal testing. As Jim Suttie points out in the Herald article – such an occurrence is not a “big deal” and in fact is a foreseen outcome of some experiments. It sounds callous, but on the cutting edge of science, the whole idea is to find out what can and will go wrong in animals so it doesn’t go wrong in us.

Botched beat up?

There’s a valid story in the fact that calves died in the course of a GM experiment. It indeed raises again the vexed issue of animal testing and what society’s tolerance is for experimenting on animals.

Last month we saw both perspectives in this debate when animal testing opponents picketed the NZBIO conference in Auckland while inside, John Forman of the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders argued passionately for  more animal testing to help tackle debilitating treat human disorders. But just because animals die in an experiment doesn’t mean that experiment was botched by the scientists involved. In fact, I haven’t seen anything in news reports to suggest the experiment was handled inappropriately or unprofessionally.

So did this story really deserve its front page lead status and unique green headline screaming “GM” in 72 point bold?

I don’t think so.