A ‘magic bullet’ of  biotechnology examined

Keywords:  Hormones (animal).
Correct citation: nn. (1996), "Editorial: A 'magic bullet' of biotechnology examined." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 27, p. 2-3.

In many developing countries, animals produce high quality proteins such as meat and milk out of worthless raw material such as crop residues, by-products of agricultural production and shrubs. An increase in the availability of milk could in these countries improve people’s nutritional status, especially if also milk prices were to fall. Additionally, many developing countries could save foreign currency now spent on the import of powdered milk.
In this context, it is no wonder that many developing countries are showing interest in recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). This growth hormone, produced by a transgenic bacteria, is injected into cows to enhance lactation. rBST has the attraction of a panacea to increase milk production without the need to invest in other production limiting factors, such as better animal health control, improving animal feed and better farm management.
However, several contributions in this issue of the Monitor put the discussion on rBST in a more realistic context. The single major cause of poor livestock productivity is poor animal nutrition, and rBST is unable to bypass this reality. According to Schriere and Tamminga, rBST can only increase milk production if the feed conditions of the cow are improved. If this precondition is not fulfilled, the increase of production will be on the account of other body functions, e.g. on fertility.
Chauvet and Ochoa present the experiences of Mexico, the first country in which rBST was introduced. rBST has only been adopted by some of the modern, intensive dairy farms. It has little to offer for the more extensive part of the Mexican dairy sector, since only with a radical change from extensive to intensive production would rBST pay off. It is clear that such a switch in production strategy, apart from the fact that it would be difficult to realize, in itself would already radically increase milk production in Mexico and make rBST superfluous.
rBST is not scale neutral since additional requirements such as knowledge of, and access to, improved animal feed are necessary to realize the surplus production. Does this imply that rBST has more to offer to industrialized countries, where intensive dairy production is far more dominant? If so, this would include a disappointment since the context of livestock production is completely different here. Within industrialized countries rBST might lower the cost of milk production, but would, for example, never contribute to better human nutrition since their milk markets are saturated. A lower production cost of milk in industrialized countries might even reduce milk production in the South, since the continued export of their milk surplus leads to low world market prices.

The early experiences of Mexico were not taken into consideration in the heavy debates on the impact of rBST, which took place in both the USA and the European Union (EU) and are described by Bijman. The experiences in the USA, however, compare with Mexico in the sense that only a part of the dairy sector has adopted rBST. Therefore, based on the Mexico and US cases, it can be anticipated that an introduction of rBST in Europe, as well as in other countries, might lead to a further articulation of the existing differences in the dairy sector.
Countries that have not yet determined their position towards rBST are not likely to base a conscious decision only on national economic interests and farm economics. As the case of the EU shows, political issues and consumers’ acceptance might have an important influence on their decision as well.

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.


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