Indian scientists decry ‘infuriating’ scheme to study benefits of cow dung, urine, and milk

A worker at a factory in India arranges cow urine capsules, believed by many Hindus to have medicinal properties.

More than 500 scientists have asked the Indian government to withdraw a call for research proposals on the “uniqueness” of indigenous cows and the curative properties of cow urine, dung, and milk, including potential cancer treatments. In an online letter, the researchers say the call is “unscientific” and a misdirection of public money at a time when research in India is already facing a financial crunch.

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Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, and some petitioners see the research program as another effort by the Indian government, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to validate faith-based pseudoscience. The call does not appear to be shaped by “objective scientific inquiry,” but rather “aimed at confirming existing beliefs,” says Aniket Sule, a reader at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education who helped draft the letter. “They should prove that there is some merit in pursuing this research before throwing money at it,” Sule says.

The call for proposals, issued 14 February, is part of a larger funding program of the Department of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa and Homoeopathy, and other government agencies. It invites projects on five research themes including: “cowpathy,” the use of cow products for medicine and health, including anticancer and diabetes drugs; the use of cow products for agriculture, such as in pesticides; cow-based products like shampoo, hair oil, and floor cleaners; and research on the nutritional value of cow milk. A major aim is the “scientific investigation of uniqueness of pure Indigenous Indian cows.”

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In their letter, scientists note that the call presumes “special physiological status to select breeds of only one species,” adding that “to begin a project with such presumptions is prima facie unscientific.” Money under the scheme could be “wasted to ‘investigate’ imaginary qualities derived from religious scriptures,” they said.

It’s not the first time the current government has promoted research on the cow, or more broadly, made scientific claims for unproven traditional beliefs. In 2017, the government set up a committee to vet research proposals to scientifically validate “panchgavya,” a concoction of cow milk, curd, ghee, dung, and urine held by Ayurveda texts to have curative properties. Last year, BJP Member of Parliament Sadhvi Pragya was widely criticised by oncologists when she claimed that cow urine cured her breast cancer.

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The latest call comes at a time when government grants are already being delayed, scientists say, with research projects getting stalled and young researchers not receiving their monthly stipends on time. In this context, “actively canvassing proposals under such dubious scheme is even more infuriating,” their letter says.

Sule and others have appealed to the ministry to withdraw the current proposal and reframe it “to encourage open inquiry.” They have also appealed to scientists across the country to use National Science Day on 28 February to educate the general public.

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