What's Another $500 Million

December 10, 1990|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON — Washington. THE genetic-engineering wizardry that tricks cows into producing more milk is under attack as potentially hazardous to human health. But the real problem isn't the safety of this stuff. Rather, it's the folly of plowing $500 million worth of research into creating more of a commodity that tends to mammoth surpluses in the normal course of agriculture.

The wonder product is bovine somatotropin -- BST, for short -- a genetically engineered mimic of a growth hormone that's naturally present in cattle. Give a cow a dose of the man-made version and her milk output will soar as much as 25 percent. The reported results are dramatic, but dairy farmers are both wary and excited about BST.

Some farmers, particularly the smaller ones, fear the economic turbulence that might ensue from a sudden surge of milk output. Others feel that while BST is in a class by itself, it is nonetheless in the tradition of increased farm productivity through scientific research.

The moment of decision is approaching for the four firms that have invested $500 million in research to develop BST and conduct trials with dairy herds to assure its effectiveness and safety -- Upjohn Company, Monsanto, the American Cyanamid Company and Eli Lilly & Company. They insist that BST leaves nothing but minuscule residues that are virtually indistinguishable from the naturally occurring hormone present in the milk.

The Food and Drug Administration recently delayed the issuance of an official decision, pending further review of the scientific literature. Meanwhile, several public-interest groups have raised concerns about the safety of BST and the adequacy of the scientific review. A lawsuit charging the Department of Agriculture with promoting BST prior to FDA approval has been filed by the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington-based organization opposed to genetic engineering. Fearing a boycott, five major supermarket chains announced last August they would not carry products produced with BST.

There's little doubt, however, that with the weight of scientific evidence vouching for the safety of BST, the regulatory track is clear for approval by the FDA sometime next year. But left untouched in this controversy is the issue of wise use of scarce scientific resources. It's not a legal issue, and it's not within the purview of federal agencies. Nonetheless, it's an important one, though the only muscle that can be brought to bear on it is public opinion.

The dairy industry has many problems, but productivity increases is not among them. From 1955 to 1975, the average annual output of American dairy herds rose from 5,842 pounds per cow to 10,360; by 1985, it was up to nearly 13,000 pounds. The increases were achieved through breeding improvements, more efficient use of feed and other boons to efficiency. Today, some herds have achieved output of over 20,000 pounds -- without BST.

The irony of the vast BST investment by the four firms is that in the politics of agriculture, milk has long been synonymous with surplus. In 1983, federal price-support programs had run up a stockpile of 1.3 billion pounds of non-fat dry milk. ''Butter mountains'' were built in cool storage caves in the U.S. and in Europe, where farmers had also achieved big productivity increases.

Five years ago, Washington tried to control the surpluses by buying dairy cows for slaughter, but farmers easily countered that tactic by producing more milk with fewer cows. The drought of 1989, along with a continuing growth of exports, temporarily brought about an unprecedented shortage of milk and a surge in prices. But in the normal course of events, America's dairy farmers are able to inundate the economy with more milk than it can possibly use -- and without BST.

The $500 million squandered on this pointless quest for further productivity could have bought a lot of useful research in health and agriculture, neither of which is brimming over with money these days. The companies will counter that they're spending, and risking, their own money, and that the choices are theirs to make.

But that's not altogether true. Most of their scientists were trained at government expense. And the science that's embodied in BST was paid for by the taxpayers. In today's economy, there's no such thing as private science.

There appears to be little doubt that BST is safe. But there are ample grounds for deploring its foolishness.

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