Biotechnology: From the Blackboard to the Barnyard

Michigan dairy farmers who put cutting-edge research to good use on the farm should beware: some people don't think cows and science make a good combination.

The latest biotechnology controversy involves Bovine Somatotropin, or BST as it is commonly known. It's a protein hormone produced naturally by a cow's pituitary gland to stimulate milk production for new-born calves. For more than a half-century, scientists have known that cows can boost their milk production by as much as 40 percent when given BST supplements, which can mean an increase in milk of up to nine pounds per cow per day.

The best scientific evidence available tells us that the extra BST does no harm to either the cows or the milk. In fact, the extra BST does not even show up in the milk, which is indistinguishable from the milk given by cows that do not get the supplement. "No matter how much extra is injected," says Michigan State University animal science specialist H. Allen Tucker, "tests show there is no chemical change in the milk." That's why neither farmers nor federal authorities feel it is necessary to label milk from treated cows as BST-induced.

Approval to test BST in the nation's milk supply came from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1985, and it has been used in several experimental herds since. Last fall, the FDA gave approval for full-scale marketing to begin in February 1994 and already, several Michigan dairy farmers are using it. The Michigan Farm Bureau is on record as endorsing its use as a "management tool" for the dairy industry.

Meanwhile, a major national campaign is underway to stop the use of BST. It is being led by a noted crusader against biotechnology, Jeremy Rifkin. Its main congressional sponsor is Wisconsin's Senator Russ Feingold. They and their allies have frightened some food stores into rejecting any milk made with the help of BST injections. It's becoming a classic case of science, reason, and economics running head-on into emotional, unthinking, pseudo-environmentalism.

In Clinton County just north of Lansing, farmer Ken Nobis first began using BST on his herd in December 1987 as part of the FDA testing process. He reports no problems with his cows' health. Nobis sees the attack on BST as "an assault on science as a whole" and says that most farmers in Clinton County-one of the most progressive dairy counties in the state-believe the application of biotechnology to agriculture can be the key to better health for both animals and humans.

It isn't, by the way, just Ken Nobis, the FDA, and most dairy farmers who say that BST is harmless and efficient. Among those who have reached the same conclusion are the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the regulatory agencies of some 30 countries. In the view of syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, the anti-BST scare "does not rest on argument. It is just the latest in a long line of technological panics . . . easily triggered by scary-sounding code words."

The minority of farmers who oppose BST are concerned that the hormone will flood the market with higher milk production and create public fears about a "contaminated" product, hurting the dairy industry's bottom line. Senator Feingold echoed those sentiments when he recently said, "It (BST) increases production and reduces demand, and that's exactly the worst case scenario."

By boosting production, BST is no different from any invention or technological advance in any other industry. It means that fewer cows will be needed to produce the same amount of milk, requiring better herd management that efficient farmers will be quick to employ. As for consumers, they won't be scared off unless the anti-BST campaign succeeds in drowning out good science with bad information.

While the ability to siphon some extra jugs of milk from dairy cows may be important, the acceptance of BST in the marketplace has more far-reaching, global significance. BST is the first major product of agricultural biotechnology and if it proves successful, it could open the door to a whole new generation of technologies capable of providing vast quantities of safer and more affordable food.

The BST controversy is really a test of mind over muddle.

Will Americans embrace science and economics or emotion and scare-talk masquerading as "environmentalism?" If they choose the latter, we'll have good reason to cry over the milk that's spilled.