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Researchers up in arms over funding focus on cow products

Scientists and researchers are up in arms against a proposal issued through the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to issue Government funding to research into the medical application of so-called ‘cowpathy’ – using cow products for health reasons.

Image credit: Aravind Sivaraj [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
The programme, entitled “Scientific Utilization through Research Augmentation Prime Products from Indigenous Cows” (SUTRA-PIC India), has five aims. Among these are, according to the Government issued press release “systematic scientific investigation of uniqueness of pure Indigenous Indian cows” and “detailed scientific investigation of chemical profiling, identification of bioactive principle responsible for enhancing activity of antibiotics and anticancer drugs, and other medicinal properties of Prime Products from indigenous cow from modern perspective.”

A group of scientists have created an online petition against the funding programme, citing that funds could be better placed elsewhere, in areas of science backed by studies and evidence. They begin “we, the concerned scientists and science communicators of this country, are extremely perturbed by the recent call for research proposals under the SUTRA-PIC India Program of SEED, DST.”

The petition systematically dismantles many of the proposed areas of research within the Government proposal. Pulling no punches the group of scientists write

“Theme 1 claims that Indian cows (not clear which particular breed) possess some ‘unique’ and ‘special’ qualities. The document has cited some possible examples of such qualities which it hoped would be non-controversial but has left wide scope open to imagination of which other real or imaginary qualities may be investigated. This opens the possibility of money under this theme being wasted to ‘investigate’ imaginary qualities derived from religious scriptures.”

In regards to the medical aspects of the research, their comments come as particularly scathing 

“Theme 2 claims that ancient Ayurvedic texts suggest cow product-based treatments for a range of exotic disorders. It seems the list of disorders include many modern disorders, for which evidence based modern medical treatment is either lacking or long term or expensive or exhausting. However, the list defies common sense as many of these ailments like cancer, diabetes, blood pressure, hyperlipidaemia were not known to writers of these ancient texts.”

The petition also notes that of the medical effects that have indeed been proven for cow-based products — of which examples are made to push more extreme claims, such as the curing of cancer — the effects are generic. Examples such as certain intestinal disorders (diarrhoea, dysentery) are noted as simply needing to repopulate gut flora which, through cow-based therapies, would be treated through consumption of curd or buttermilk. This effect can, however, be achieved through numerous other foods, not just through cow products. 

Similarly, for other conditions such as eczema, the application of ghee on the affected area may have a soothing effect, but so would application of many other fat-based, moisturising substances. In fact many, over the counter topical creams or even herbal remedies may also benefit the condition to a similar, if not greater degree. 

The scientists allege that by reforming the argument to assign special abilities and capacities to indigenous cow breeds — whether real or perceived — the conclusion has already been drawn and bias is inevitable. As such, focusing large amounts of research funding to an area of medical research with little-to-no scientific backing, not only detracts from genuine scientific research, but could allow for the production of medical treatments that could be genuinely dangerous.

As previously reported by Health Issues India, the Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) Ministry is working according to the belief that cow urine could cure cancer. “Cow urine is used in the preparation of several types of medicines. It is used even for the treatment of incurable diseases like cancer,” Minister of State for Health Ashwini Choubey announced at the time. “The urine of the indigenous variety of cow is often used. The Ministry of AYUSH is seriously working on it.”

Claims that cow urine-based products can cure a plethora of conditions have their roots in Ayurvedic tradition, with its consumption reportedly dating back 5,000 years. However, modern science disputes these claims. While it is unlikely to be unsafe to drink a small amount of any urine, studies have linked urine consumption with negative health effects including contaminating the blood with toxins and bacteria and affecting kidney function.

The petition underlines that the research proposal document is filled with statements such as “it is believed” and other terminology to this effect. This, the scientists note, is an unscientific principle in and of itself. The notion of taking biased belief systems and treating them as hard evidence is fundamentally unscientific and incongruous with applications in the same vein as modern medicine. They note that there is little scientific data that would distinguish the Indian cow biologically from other bovine species enough that their physiology produces cures as important to human health as that of the cure for cancer. As such, to pour funding into the topic relegates other areas of Indian science — often from world leading scientists — to the sidelines. The petition concludes

“As we all know, the present financial year has been a difficult year for most of the scientific institutes in the country. Several important research projects are getting derailed due to lack of adequate funds from the government…in such [a] dismal funding situation, DST actively canvassing proposals under such [a] dubious scheme is even more infuriating.”

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