By the end of this year, very few dairy processors will accept milk produced with rBST. There will still be a few pockets here and there in the Midwest and possibly in Idaho, but for the most part, rBST will fade into history—driven there by ignorance, misinformation and fear.
Part of the blame falls to the dairy industry itself. Proponents tried to explain but could never completely convince naysayers about the benefits of the technology and how it could provide more dairy products at lower cost without jeopardizing food safety or cow health. Opponents, both within and outside the industry, played on consumer fears of “Franken foods” and, worse, what it might do to children’s growth and development. The most recent example came just last month when Arla Foods USA launched a 30-second ad targeted toward grade school kids.
Prior to its launch in 1994, rBST opponents within the industry feared a flood of milk and crashing milk prices as a result. That never happened, with adoption rates probably never reaching a fourth of farms.
Take a look at the chart below, supplied by Brian Gould, an dairy economist with the University of Wisconsin. Milk per cow, the blue line, has grown at a pretty steady 2.2% compound annual growth rate since the end of World War II. Can you tell when rBST was introduced? Even if you draw a vertical line up from 1994 when rBST was introduced, the slope of the graph doesn’t change. And the decline in cow numbers, the red line, actually tapered off in the mid-90s, when rBST use was likely at its highest rate.
But the opposition to rBST, based on that fear, helped create the environment of consumer paranoia of food technology we now find ourselves in. It’s an ugly place between a rock and hard place to be.
In and of itself, the loss of rBST isn’t that big of a deal. Dairy farmers in the Northeast who lost the technology first learned to live without it, and within a year or two, are producing just as much milk per cow as before. But they had to step up their repro management, perhaps becoming even more reliant on reproductive treatments to get cows bred back. Could those treatments now come under increased consumer scrutiny, again driven by activists’ disinformation?
Of even bigger concern is the rising angst over genetically-modified crops. Take these tools away, productivity will drop, pesticide use will increase and the dairy industry’s incredible story of sustainability gains since World War II will fade away.
Agriculture has to find a better way to tell its story. Perhaps the dairy check-off’s new advertising campaign, which hopes to rebuild trust in dairy farmers (“Undeniably Dairy,” p. 30), is a place to start. Let’s hope so.
Note: This story appears in the June 2017 issue of Dairy Herd Management.