Will Monsanto's Bst Send Flood of Milk into Supermarkets?
Robert Steyer Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
It took more than 12 years of tests, government review and battles with opponents for Monsanto Co. to get U.S. approval for a drug that raises cows' milk production.
Now, comes the hard part for the the drug bovine somatotropin, also known as BST.
Even though federal health authorities say BST is safe, will consumers accept dairy products from cows injected with a genetically-engineered drug?
Even though the government isn't requiring a special label for milk from cows injected with BST, will supermarkets sell dairy products amidst threats of protest by critics?
Even though BST has been tested more than any agricultural product in history, will ice cream makers, butter producers and cheese manufacturers accept it?
But first on this list of questions: Will dairy farmers buy it?
"A lot of people will wait to see if there's a consumer backlash," said Clay Whitehead, a spokesman for the National Farmers Union, which represents some 250,000 farm families and opposes the drug.
"Dairy farmers are in a fairly risky business," he said. "They're probably not going to rush onto the bandwagon."
Dairy experts at Monsanto, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and elsewhere make similar comments - with a different spin.
The USDA predicts that 10 percent of U.S. dairy cows will be injected with BST by the end of 1994. The drug goes on sale in February.
Keith Collins, the USDA's chief economist, added last week that BST usage would "grow steadily." He did not elaborate.
Monsanto declines to predict how many farmers will buy the drug and how many cows will be treated.
"BST won't be an earthquake in the dairy industry," said Robert J. Collier, director of dairy research for Monsanto. "It will have its biggest impact in the first few years of use."
But Monsanto didn't invest what some analysts say was $300-plus million to create a mere ripple in the dairy industry.
Until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration endorsed BST last month, Monsanto had been selling the drug in only a handful of countries. The U.S. market is the key to the drug's success.
"We know from our experience in Mexico and Brazil that the economics is there," said Walter P. Hobgood, vice president of Monsanto's animal sciences division. "The question is how fast this will be adopted."
***** A Flood Of Milk?
Some critics contend that BST will trigger a huge milk surplus and a corresponding plunge in milk prices.
Monsanto executives, USDA officials and dairy trade groups say this worst-case scenario won't happen.
Part of the fear, they say, is based on reports of the earliest BST tests, in which some cows produced as much as 40 percent more milk.
"As more trial results came out, the more realistic the estimates became," said Richard Fallert, senior economist for USDA's dairy research section.
Over the years, tests by Monsanto and other BST-makers have narrowed that range to 10 to 20 percent.
Monsanto and USDA say fears of super surpluses are inflated because every farmer won't buy the drug and every cow won't be injected.
Dairy farmers have been slower to use new technologies than swine and poultry producers, said Rick L. Ryan, director of commercial development and international markets for Monsanto's agriculture division.
His view is endorsed by Michael F. Hutjens, a dairy specialist for the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.
"Thirty-five to 40 percent have decided not to use artificial insemination," said Hutjens, discussing a technique that has boosted milk output over the years. "How can a farmer not do that? Good question."
Hutjens said formal and informal surveys suggest that 10 percent of the farmers will try BST immediately and 50 percent will refuse to use it. The rest will sit on the fence. …