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Udder madness over milk.

Would you drink milk from cows treated with a genetically engineered drug? Chances are, you already have. Join the debate over the use of this drug and the future of our nation's milk supply.

Ever since you were old enough to pour yourself a glass of milk, you've known that "cow juice" is good for you. Its nutrients strengthen your bones and help you grow. So you might be surprised to know that what food experts call the "most nearly perfect food" is now at the heart of a nationwide debate.

Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug that boosts milk production when injected into dairy cows. To milk chuggers or ice cream lovers, more milk may sound great. But critics say, "Don't buy it!" They argue that despite the FDA's approval, the drug may cause health problems in cows and unknown harm to humans who drink the milk.


The debate centers on the fact that milk from these drug-treated cows is the first food produced by genetic engineering, the transfer of genetic material from one kind of living thing, or species, to another.

Genetic material (DNA) contains the instructions that give each species (e.g., a cow, a dog, a human) its unique characteristics. Transferring pieces of DNA (genes) from one species to another allows scientists to alter life-forms so that they have new combinations of traits.

In this case, the scientists aren't putting new genes into cows. They are putting a cow gene into a type of bacterium (see diagram, p. 8). The bacteria then use the cow's genetic instructions to make something cows make naturally: bovine somatotropin (BST), a chemical that stimulates milk production. When farmers inject this bacteria-made BST (called recombinant or rBST) into their cows, the cows make more milk.


Making more milk with fewer cows saves money on feed and allows farmers to find other uses for grazing land, says Gary Barton of Monsanto, a company that makes rBST. Increased milk production, he says, may also help feed the world's growing population, which scientists predict may double in the next 30 to 40 years.

But is the milk safe? According to FDA Commissioner David Kessler, milk from cows treated with rBST is virtually identical to milk from untreated cows. Recombinant BST simply "stimulates the production of milk," emphasizes Monsanto's Barton. "It doesn't add anything to the milk."

Despite these claims, protesters hit the streets as soon as the "new" milk hit grocery shelves last February. Some protesters dressed in cow suits and picketed in front of TV cameras. Others poured gallons of milk onto sidewalks.

A group known as The Pure Food Campaign called rBST "crack for cows," claiming that "it revs their system and forces them to produce a lot more milk, but also makes them sick." Some rBST-treated cows suffer an increased number of udder infections, "because their udders get bloated with all that milk," says group member Jill Cashen.

Drugs used to treat these infected cows, Cashen warns, could end up in the milk. [The FDA, Monsanto, and many dairy companies insist that milk from infected cows is kept from market shelves.]

Protesters have other health concerns: Milk from rBST-treated cows, they say, contains higher levels of a natural growth-promoting protein than does milk from untreated cows. One scientist, Dr. Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois, claims that increased levels of this substance can induce abnormal growth of bone and breast tissue.

Flooding the market with more milk could also have negative economic effects, rBST opponents say. More milk at lower prices may benefit consumers. But some dairy farmers may suffer from lower incomes, and eventually be forced out of business. "We simply do not need any more milk," Cashen says.


One thing both sides agree on: The milk debate is only the beginning of disputes over genetically engineered foods. Last summer, the FDA approved the Flavr Savr tomato, whose altered genes allow it to stay fresher longer. Other gene-altered foods in the pipeline include french fries that absorb less oil and beans that don't make you ... you know.

Ultimately, you have to decide what role these foods will play in our future. Given the choice, would you eat genetically engineered foods? Read what some teens around the country have to say about rBST (previous page). Then debate the issue with your friends and record your opinion below. You might also want to write to your government representatives, speak with a grocer, or start an informational campaign at school to let others know where you stand.

Should farmers use rBST to boost cow's milk production?


"Researchers said they weren't sure how the milk would affect humans. You don't know if it's pure. It sounds like it's artificial." Carrie Michaelis Age 14 Cooperstown, ND


"If scientists have confirmed that it's safe enough to drink the milk that is produced from the [injected] cows, then I will drink it." Cecilia Concha Age 12 Dania, FL


"Since we're not really running out of milk, I think that it's not right to make the cows have more milk. I know it's painful to get a shot, and that's what they're doing to these cows." Sara Schooley Age 12 Hoffman Estates,IL


"Around here the attitude is |more milk, more money.' It's better for the farmers." Jordan Glimm Age 18 Mansfield, PA

What's your opinion?

To see where you stand in relation to the rest of your class, flip the page, cast your vote, and give this ballot to your teacher for counting.

Should farmers use rBST to boost cow's milk production?

[ ] Yes [ ] No

Why or why not?



Scientists use chemical "scissors" to cut up and combine pieces of DNA (genes) from a cow cell and a bacterial cell.

They snip out the cow gene that instructs cells to make BST, a protein that boosts milk production, and splice it into bacterial DNA.

Then they put this new recombinant DNA into bacterial cells.

With their new genetic instructions, the bacteria multiply in "tanks" and churn out recombinant BST.

Scientists purify the rBST. Farmers inject it into cows. Result: Cows make more milk.
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related information; controversy over use of recombinant bovine somatotropin to stimulate milk production
Author:Freiman, Chana
Publication:Science World
Date:Sep 2, 1994
Previous Article:Should Americans measure metric?
Next Article:Feeding time at the zoo.

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