Food and Drink: The milking of the cash cow: Should big business deliver us a genetically-engineered pinta? Joanna Blythman thinks not

This looks like being the Year of the Cow. Milk, that most basic foodstuff, will be at the centre of a historic European stand-off between the interests of transnational big business and those of ordinary consumers. It comes over as a complex scientific debate. But, in essence, the issues are simple and anyone who cares about the quality of our food needs to be aware of them. Otherwise, a crucial precedent that may change the face of our food production irrevocably could slip through largely unnoticed.

The subject in question is a drug called BST, or Bovine Somatotropin. You can explain the working of BST in scientific terms until the cows come home but, put simply, it is a way of making dairy cows produce more milk by genetically engineering a hormone that occurs naturally in cows.

Scientists have been able to produce BST for more than a decade, and in the United States, BGH - or bovine growth hormone as it is more candidly named - has recently been licensed for use despite sustained public resistance.

In Europe, however, the authorities have so far imposed a series of moratoriums on its sale. Three issues have blocked the progress of the hormone's manufacturers. The first is the argument that, when overproduction is generating unwanted milk supplies which we attempt to control through quotas, a drug such as BST is contrary to agricultural policy objectives.

The second is animal welfare. Opponents of BST say that by putting even more pressure on the already stressed, high-yielding modern dairy cow, it pushes her towards metabolic exhaustion and is thus an unnecessary risk to her health and welfare.

The third is that consumers do not want it. Opinion surveys in France, Italy, Germany and the UK reflect this, with an 11 per cent reduction in consumption predicted if BST milk and milk products were on the market.

Last July, the European Commission seemed set to turn these objections into EU policy for the foreseeable future. It recommended a seven-year ban on BST - action which was quickly ratified by the European Parliament, and further strengthened in December. Then the Parliament voted to separate the ban on BST from the issue of milk quotas (paving the way for a total ban, irrespective of EU milk production levels), and to introduce a ban on milk and milk products from BST-treated cows imported from non-EU countries.

But, almost simultaneously, the EC Council of Ministers decided to ignore its civil servants (the Commission) and its democratically elected representative body (the Parliament), and reduce the moratorium from seven years to one, opening the door to sales of BST milk in Europe by early next year.

David Martin, a vice-president of the European Parliament, says: 'It is a constitutional outrage that the Council of Ministers should act in this fashion. Meeting in secret, it is probably acting on the advice of top-level government advisers with vested industrial interests. Like many MEPs, I am not convinced that BST is OK for the animals, or a humane product.'

Clues to the thinking of the British government, at least, can be gleaned from the standard letter on BST sent out to concerned citizens by Gillian Shephard, the Agriculture Minister. This makes the case that BST meets standards of 'safety, quality and efficacy'. She says that there are no 'scientific criteria' to ban BST, and that licensing would 'avoid international trading problems' and 'maintain the competitiveness of the Community's agriculture and food-based sector'.

On animal welfare, Mrs Shephard bases her trust on the view of the EU's Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products. It concluded that an increase in mastitis (udder inflammation) in animals treated in tests was due not to BST but to 'increased milk yield'.

'This is nonsense,' says Joyce d'Silva, director of Compassion in World Farming. 'The milk yield increases precisely because the animals are treated with BST] Read between the lines of the report and you can pick out a number of signs - anaemia, raised levels of fatty acids, urea - which show that BST pushes cows to total exhaustion and predisposes them to disease.'

On BST, animal welfare lobbyists have found an unlikely ally in the National Farmers Union. It believes that the damage done to the milk industry through association with BST is disproportionate to any benefits. The union says that as yet there is no 'tracer' through which artificial BST could be detected and also no way of differentiating BST-produced milk: it would be 'an operational nightmare to keep it distinct from natural milk'. So consumers would not know which type they were buying.

The 'international trading problems' which the Government predicts if a BST ban stays in place relate to the Gatt deal, signed during the same week in December when the Council of Ministers reduced the BST moratorium. Opponents of Gatt have argued that it would create a 'free trade at all costs' climate which would encourage the debasement of food standards. Under Gatt, a European BST ban could be interpreted as a 'non-tariff barrier to trade', and therefore 'Gatt-illegal'.

In December, Mrs Shephard confirmed to consumer groups that this was her interpretation. David Martin, though, thinks that Gatt is more 'the excuse than the reason'. He points instead at pressure put on governments by transnational biotechnology companies which want to see their investment in research realised by sales. Three biotech companies - Monsanto, Cyanamid and Eli-Lilly - have substantial interests in BST. They are estimated to have sunk at least pounds 500m into developing BST, with estimated worldwide sales of dollars 1bn a year as the reward. A European moratorium is a substantial obstacle to this target.

It is clear that, in Britain, considerable pressure has been mounted by UK manufacturers of BST. In a memo to the Commons European Select Committee, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food uses the predicament of Dista products at Speke, on Merseyside (part of the Lilly Group), to stress the point: 'Investment of pounds 40m could be affected, together with 150 jobs. The Commission Communication (recommendation) means that a considerable domestic and EC export market would continue to be unavailable for these products.' It adds that a BST ban would 'pose a serious threat to the development and commercialisation of biotechnology . . . and deter investment'.

This illustrates how the biotech industry sees BST as the precedent which can force the products of genetic engineering on to the market, despite widespread consumer opposition. The same interests would almost certainly seek a reversal of Europe's decade-old ban on meat growth-promoting hormones in general. The industry believes BST is one battle it cannot afford to lose.

If BST were to be licensed, a boycott of BST milk would be launched by consumer groups. Since it would be impossible to distinguish the milk from BST cows, that could become effectively a total milk boycott - a state of affairs which both farmers and retailers fear.

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