If you head out of Eau Clair and travel west about 40 miles
on Route 12 through the rolling farmland and morning-in-America
backdrop of Wisconsin’s interior, you’ll find yourself in a laid-
back town called Baldwin (pop. 1620).  There, on land that’s been
in the family for three generations, Todd Doornink runs a dairy
herd of 400 cows with his wife and two children.  Being so far
away from the flashy coasts which breed new trends on an almost
weekly basis, few would expect folks like the Doorninks to be on
the cutting edge of a profound international happening.  But big
things are brewing down on the farm.  The Doorninks, like many
other dairy farmers across the nation, are about to use the first
genetically-engineered agricultural product to hit the market. 
And should it prove to be the boon that many experts confidently
predict, it could pave the way for a revolution in food
production.


Bovine somatotropin, or BST as it is commonly known, is a
protein hormone that helps cows produce more milk.  When injected into dairy cows in small amounts, it supplements the BST already found naturally in the animals and can boost milk production by as much as 10-40 percent without harming the cows or the milk.


The obvious appeal for farmers like the Doorninks, of
course, is that it allows them to increase their yield of milk
with minimal expense and effort.  The cost to treat cows with the
recommended bi-weekly dose of 500 milligrams of BST is only
around $10 per month per cow.  This can translate into an
increase in milk of nine pounds per cow per day, which for a herd
of 50 cows would generate some $8,000 in additional profit each
year.  “The farm is a business,” Doornink notes, “and the bottom
line is if BST can improve efficiency, that’s the main thing.”


Smiles and frowns


The idea of giving cows extra BST has been on the minds of
scientists for many years.  But it was only recent advances in
biotechnology that enabled researchers to figure out how to get
bacteria to produce it.  This has provided a cheap and bountiful
supply of the hormone that has made its application practicable.



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.  But the final approval did
not occur until last fall when the feds gave the O.K. for full-
scale marketing to begin this February.


Not everyone, though, received the FDA’s news with a hearty
grin, like Jeremy Rifkin, for instance, who led publicity efforts and sparsely attended rallies to draw attention to the
claims that BST is unsafe for both man and beast.  There were
also criticisms from some small-farmers unions that believe an
increased milk supply will hurt the profitability of their
industry.  Such concerns, however, hold little weight with
scientists and economists.


A resounding “amen”


Concerning BST’s effect on humans, opponents question its
safety.  “We have no – zero – long-term health studies to assure
us that it’s safe for human consumption,” exclaimed Mike Irwin of
the Wisconsin Rural Development Center.  Even so, there are
apparently enough studies to convince the experts.  In fact, it
would be hard to come up with a more resounding “amen” than the
one emanating from the world’s congregation of leading scientific
organizations.  In addition to the FDA, such noted groups as the
American Medical 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 in over 30
countries have all concluded milk from BST-treated cows is safe
to drink.  So convinced are the experts of its safety that the
president of the 63,500 member American Dietetic Association,
Sara Parks, recently stated, “The evidence is clear that BST does
not change the composition of milk, and consumers should have
complete confidence in the milk supply.”


With regard to the cows themselves, some critics believe
that as more milk buckets pile up, so will the cases of an udder
infection known as mastitis.  This is because mastitis is common
among cows that produce a lot of milk.  They further claim this
will lead to increased residues of antibiotics in the nation’s
milk supply as farmers are forced to treat more infected cows.


However, according to Dr. Robert Bremel, a dairy science
professor at the University of Wisconsin, the increased cases of
mastitis that might result from the use of BST “would go largely
unnoticed.”  He found in his studies that even if all 1.7 million
cows in the Badger State were treated with BST, the incidence of
mastitis would rise from the current 1,300 to around 1,600 — or
the equivalent of a nominal six cows per county.  It must also be
noted that the FDA keeps a close watch on antibiotic residues and
the penalties on farmers for tainted milk are severe.  As a
result, many dairy producers are moving away from antibiotics to
more natural treatments of the infection.


Supply and demand


The final and perhaps biggest charge being leveled against
BST is its potential impact on the pocketbooks of American
farmers.  Here, critics claim the hormone will flood the market
with increased milk and at the same time create public fears
about a contaminated product that will combine to wreak economic
havoc on the dairy industry.  This was summed up in a recent
statement by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), an anti-BST leader,
who said, “It increases production and reduces demand, and that’s
exactly the worst cast scenario.”


Such criticisms are proving hard to maintain in the face of
economic research that shows them to be unfounded.  First, a
recent poll by the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association found 91%
of the consumers it surveyed are buying either as much or more
milk as they did before BST was approved.  This supports the
statement of the Department of Agriculture’s chief economist who
said there will be no consumer resistance. 


And as for the economic impact on farmers, a study by the
Office of Management and Budget found that even with a drop in
milk prices (something consumers certainly won’t gripe about),
those who use BST will probably reap bigger profits as they use
fewer cows to produce more milk.  “BST favors good herd
management rather than small or large farms,” the report said
which echoes the sentiments of small dairy farmer Gary
Luchterhand who commented, “The better managers will benefit the
most.”


Looking forward


While the ability to siphon out some extra jugs of milk from
dairy cows is important, the acceptance of BST in the marketplace
has far more 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.  As the New York Times pointed out in a
recent article, future possibilities of biotech include
“increasing the protein value of corn and grains, inducing
tolerance to frost and drought, building in resistance to
pests…increasing vitamin and mineral content, and modifying the
amount and types of fats in food.” 


With so much awesome potential at stake with BST, the trend-
setting folks in Baldwin, and dozens of towns like it, should be
holding their heads high. 



January, 1994

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