Cows Aren't a Problem, but We Solved It Anyway

November 23, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- What this country doesn't need is more milk. We were already awash in the stuff when calorie watching and the cholesterol panic scuttled consumption and created new mountains of government-owned butter, cheese and powdered milk. Adding to the woes of the dairy industry, Dr. Spock himself has upset nutritional dogma by proclaiming that children are better off without cow's milk.

Meanwhile, through breeding and sophisticated farm management, the modern cow is a super-beast, a masterpiece of efficiency, producing two to three times as much as her ancestors of 30 years ago. And the pace of productivity increases continues.

The U.S. may someday run out of oil, but a bountiful supply of milk is assured. Because of slumping consumption and more milk per cow, the national dairy herd fell from 23 million to 10 million between 1950 and 1991. Thousands of dairy farms have gone out of business. Surpluses have been brought under control by government incentives for slaughtering herds, but the potential for a glut is always there.

Given these circumstances, it would appear that milk production has attained a rare status: It is a solved problem, one of the rare few in our problem-ridden society. No matter. A potent imperative of science requires that whatever can be done usually will be done, whether it makes sense or not.

And so, using recombinant DNA technology, researchers have produced a wondrous product, a mimic of a hormone naturally present in cows, bovine somatotropin, or BST, which influences the production of milk. Injections of the man-made hormone increase milk production by 10 to 20 percent. One of the paymasters for this achievement, Monsanto, has picked up where the laboratory left off and has shepherded the new product through the federal regulatory process. Similar products developed by other companies are coming along.

After lengthy consultations with assorted experts, the Food and Drug Administration recently concluded that the man-made hormone is virtually indistinguishable from the natural version, and therefore it's OK to inject dairy herds with BST and market the milk to consumers.

The FDA's decision was received with gratitude and excitement in the biotechnology industry, which has so far produced more hope than profits. At the same time, courtroom fights and supermarket boycotts have been vowed by pure-food enthusiasts and science skeptics.

Despite the warnings of hazards in tinkering with nature's products, the thoroughness of the FDA review provides reason for confidence that milk from cows souped up with BST is no different from the natural product. Nor does there seem to be much basis for the fear that monumental milk production renders cows more vulnerable to infections and use of antibiotics that can get into the milk and meat supply. Safeguards against that danger already exist, though they should be more rigorously applied.

The BST researchers and their corporate chiefs exude confidence that they have made a valuable contribution, and dismiss their critics as backward-looking Luddites. Thus, Monsanto matter-of-factly explains that ''BST is simply another milk-production tool that a farmer can use to produce milk more efficiently.''

The issue that goes unaddressed is the folly of millions of dollars and platoons of talent going into the development of needless scientific magic. BST is indeed a marvel of genetic engineering. But why bother to increase the production of a commodity that has already attained a troublesome level of abundance?

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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