Now that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of bioengineered bovine growth hormone (bGH), dairy farmers – and consumers – have some crucial decisions to make.
The risks and possible payoffs of the bGH decision are laid out in detail in a remarkable new book called The Dairy Debate (edited by William C. Liebhardt, available for $28 from ANR Publications, University of California, 6701 San Pablo Ave, Oakland CA 94608-1239). The book looks at bGH not in a vacuum, but in relation to an alternative technology called rotational grazing. And it looks at the full effects of both technologies on farmers, consumers, and the economy.
BGH (also known as bST, bovine somatotropin) is a hormone naturally produced by cows. Four companies (American Cyanamid, Eli Lilly, Monsanto, and Upjohn) have learned how to snip out the fraction of cow DNA that codes for this hormone, insert it into the DNA of bacteria, grow the bacteria in vats, extract large quantities of bGH from those vats, and sell it to farmers.
Normally, for about 12 weeks after a cow calves, she produces milk at the expense of her own tissues. She loses weight, she is infertile, and she is more than usually subject to diseases such as mastitis. Finally her milk output tapers down, her feed intake catches up, and she begins to rebuild her body.
By injecting or implanting bGH a farmer can postpone that crossover point for another eight to 12 weeks and keep milk production higher longer. The companies claim that milk output per cow can increase by 10-25 percent, while feed consumption goes up by only 6-12 percent.
The cost of bGH will be roughly 50 cents per cow per day. Multiply that by 10 million cows, and you can see why Monsanto and friends pulled out all lobbying stops to get this technology approved.
The other new breakthrough in dairy farming, rotational grazing, reverses the modern practice of keeping cows in the barn and bringing them their feed. It puts them back on pasture.
What’s new is that the herd is confined to an area as small as one acre, which it grazes heavily for one to three days. Then the cows are moved to a new patch. They cycle back to any particular grazing area four to eight times in a growing season.
This simple idea increases the productivity of pastures amazingly. They grow faster, they require less fertilizer, they produce fewer weeds, they erode less. Milk production may or may not go up, but costs go down by as much as $270 per cow per year.
What happens, under both these production methods, to the cows? In rotational grazing they get healthier. They are outdoors, moving and grazing normally. They have less lameness, fewer infections, less trouble with breeding and calving.
With bGH, cows are more prone to infection, especially mastitis, and they have trouble breeding. BGH seems to work for only one lactation – after that the cow "burns out." Some experts expect bGH to reduce a cow’s productive lifetime from about four lactations to two.
Is there any difference in the milk?
Not with rotational grazing. And not, says the FDA, with bGH. There are uncertainties here. Artificial bGH is slightly different from the cow’s bGH and might produce some allergic reactions. It increases another growth factor in milk called IGF-1 – scientists disagree about whether that is a problem. Health troubles in the cow could result in milk containing antibiotics or a slightly different nutrient composition. These possible effects are exaggerated by bGH foes, minimized by bGH proponents, and not yet tested by neutral scientists under farm conditions.
What’s in it for the farmers?
In rotational grazing there is little change in output, but costs go down, so profits go up. Rotational grazing requires an investment in fencing (usually portable electric), closer attention to pasture conditions, and regular moving of the herd, but it’s less work and requires less equipment than barn feeding.
If bGH performs as advertised, it should increase production more than costs – therefore it will also raise profits. It requires either daily injections or an implant that lasts for 14 days. And, of course, bGH makes farmers dependent on a new input from industry.
Since this country already produces an embarrassing surplus of milk, if bGH does raise production per cow, it will make the surplus worse, depress prices, and force some farmers out of business. Eight different studies conclude that small and medium-size farms will be the ones to go. As many as 40,000 dairy farms, 30 percent of the total, may disappear.
Nothing prevents a farmer from adopting both these methods, except that they can’t seem to co-exist in any single head. BGH appeals to the industrial model of agriculture, which glories in increased output, and sees cows as milk machines and rural communities as expendable.
Rotational grazing makes sense if you can focus on profit more than output, and if you think the health of animals, land, consumers, and communities is as important as the health of agribusiness.
If, as a consumer, you have an opinion about this farm decision, too bad. The FDA, leaned upon heavily by Monsanto, has ruled that milk produced with bGH does not have to be labeled.
Many supermarkets and producers (like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Stonyfield yogurt) have announced that they will not accept bGH-stimulated milk and have labeled their products accordingly.
Monsanto is challenging those labels, on the grounds that they imply a health hazard in milk that has been pronounced officially safe. It doesn’t seem to occur to the company that consumers might care about more than their own health, and that they might have a desire and a right to know not only what’s in a product, but how it was produced.
Donella Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and an IC contributing editor.