Dr. Normand St-Pierre, Dairy Management Specialist, The Ohio State University
If you believe the headlines of most major newspapers and magazines, the U.S. consumer is against the use of biotechnology in agriculture and prefers that his/her food be grown in a natural and organic fashion.
Recently, a few milk purchasers and resellers, including the Kroger Company, used this argument in deciding to stop purchasing milk from farms that use recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), a hormone produced by Monsanto using recombinant-DNA under the trade name of Posilac®.
From the perspective of one who has spent over 25 years of his life working on improving dairy productivity and profitability by using modern management, nutrition, and biotechnology tools, this perception by the U. S. consumer would be disheartening if it was anywhere close to being true.
In a June 29 guest editorial in the New York Times (hardly a bastion of conservatism...), Henry I. Miller advocated "... the use of rBST to help increase the supply of milk and decrease current fluid milk price to consumers."
Miller was quick to point out that: "Bad-faith efforts by biotechnology opponents to portray rBST as untested or harmful, and to discourage its use, keep society from taking full advantage of a safe and useful product. The opponents' limited success is keeping the price of milk unnecessarily high."
The sad think is that no milk is free of BST; all milk contains BST and numerous other hormones, all produced naturally by our cows. In fact, all milk contains some hormones, and human milk can contain significantly greater amounts of progesterone and/or estrogen than good old bovine milk.
But, is there really a consumer worry?
For 12 years, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has commissioned Cogent Research, an independent survey firm, to conduct a quantitative assessment of consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology and safety. The last survey was conducted at the end of July 2007. The study found that "consumer familiarity and overall impression of food biotechnology remains little changed from a year ago". Thus, the situation is certainly not deteriorating. In fact, changes were almost all in a positive direction.
Favorable impression of animal biotechnology increased by 26% between 2006 and 2007. Nearly two-thirds of respondents answered that they were "somewhat" or "very likely" to buy meat, milk, and eggs from animals enhanced through genetic engineering.
In addition, two-thirds of consumers (66%) said that they had a positive impression of animal biotechnology when informed that "animal biotechnology can improve quality and safety of food", up from 59% last year. These numbers hardly support the claim by some that consumers are opposed to biotechnology in general and rBST in particular.
So who is stirring the pot?
What must be realized is that a small but very vocal group of activists have seized this issue in an effort to divide the dairy industry. In case you have never been a proponent of rBST and are considering its removal by so-called "market forces" a kind of a blessing, you may want to find out with whom your position on this issue associates you.
Who are some of the opponents to the use of rbST? On the goveg.com website, you would find out that: "To keep producing milk, cows are forcibly impregnated through artificial insemination every year. The cow's babies are generally taken away within a day of being born - male calves are destined to veal crates, while females are sentenced to the same fate as their mothers."
"Mother cows on dairy farms can often be seen searching and calling for their babies long after they have been taken away. The mother cow will be hooked up several times a day to machines that take the milk intended for her calf. Through genetic manipulation, powerful hormones, and intensive milking, she will produce about three times as much milk as she would naturally."
You may want to reflect on this the next time that you hook up a cow to one of these horrible milking machines. And it gets worse.
Freegans are also strongly opposed to biotechnology. In case you didn't know, freeganism is the latest lifestyle that is gaining notoriety. Freeganism is defined as a strategy for living "based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimum consumption of resources." The lifestyle in question consists in salvaging discarded, unspoiled food from supermarket dumpsters that has passed the expiration date but is still edible.
According to Drover's Magazine, "Freegans claim that people sincerely committed to living the cruelty-free lifestyle espoused by vegans must strive to abstain not only from eating, wearing, and using animal skins, secretions (e.g., milk and its byproducts), flesh and animal-tested products, but must attempt to remove themselves from participation in the capitalist economy altogether as workers and consumers."
I suppose you can meet them near your local Kroger dumpsters, although it is unclear whether discarded milk from farms using rbST - still the norm at your Kroger store - can be consumed by freegans. Meanwhile, I'll keep drinking my hormone-laced milk produced by genetically manipulated cows, artificially inseminated, and milked by a horrific, nasty and awful milking machine.