WISCONSIN is at the forefront of a budding national debate over biotechnology and food. The specific controversy here is BST, or bovine somatotropin, an experimental growth hormone that increases a cow's milk production. BST critics have scored several public-relations victories this summer. They say BST will flood the milk market, drive farmers out of business, and may even be dangerous to consumers.
Now, the Wisconsin Senate agriculture committee is finalizing a bill that would put a moratorium on use of the growth hormone until mid-1991, and then require dairies to label products as BST or non-BST derived.
``The issue has caught hold in Wisconsin,'' says jubilant state Sen. Russell Feingold, a BST critic and sponsor of a bill that would force BST labeling.
Supporters and critics agree that a decision here in the nation's leading dairy state will have national implications - not only for BST but for other food-industry innovations expected from the biotechnology revolution.
The synthetic BST that has caused the uproar is a nearly exact copy of the natural BST found in a cow's body. Scientists long suspected BST helped cows produce more milk. In 1980, a new bioengineered form of BST allowed Cornell University scientists to test its effects. Their tests and other experiments at several universities have shown the product boosts a cow's output by 10 percent to 25 percent and improves its feed efficiency by 5 percent to 15 percent. That means more milk at lower costs for dairy farmers and consumers.
Four US companies hope to market commercial forms of the product. Upjohn Company has a water-like solution that would be injected in the rear leg of a dairy cow every day. Elanco Products Company, a division of Eli Lilly & Co., has developed a paste version, a little runnier than toothpaste, which is injected into the cow's shoulder once every four weeks. Monsanto Agricultural Company and American Cyanamid Company are also marketing BST products.
The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already approved the milk from BST experiments to be sold for human consumption. It could give the companies final approval next year, pending tests on the effects of BST on dairy cattle.
But many dairymen and farm groups, such as the National Farmers Union and National Farmers Organization, are fighting the technology because it will force a good chunk of them out of business. Dairy cooperatives in several states and in Canada have refused to take the BST experimental milk, including dairies in 21 states represented by the largest US cooperative, Associated Milk Producers Inc. A March survey by Dairy Herd Management magazine found that 75 percent of dairy farms opposed the approval of BST, with the smallest farms holding the most negative view.
In late August, five of the largest US supermarket chains - Kroger, Safeway, Stop & Shop, Supermarkets General, and Vons - made public steps they had taken to ensure their products did not contain any of the experimental milk. Huge US processors, including Kraft and Borden, have said no to it. Ben and Jerry's, a premium ice-creammaker in Vermont, has gone even further, campaigning against the product on its ice cream packages.
``Our goal is to have our farmer-consumer coalition so well organized that after the FDA inevitably approves it, the product will be dead in the marketplace,'' says John Stauber, field director for the Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington, D.C., group that is fighting several biotechnology products.
The new measure in Wisconsin, if approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, would pose a substantial challenge to BST - and to the traditional ways in which new technologies have entered agriculture. The rethinking is taking place along these lines:
Technology needs to be judged by its socioeconomic effects. Traditionally, that has not happened. ``I don't want to see government agencies deciding on the basis of alleged economic grounds what should or should not enter the American marketplace,'' says Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, reflecting the traditional view.
Industry scientists and United States Department of Agriculture economists point out that earlier technologies, such as pasteurization and artificial insemination, also sparked objections from some consumer groups who were concerned about safety, and dairy farmers, who feared they would be unable to compete.
Some technologies are helpful and others aren't, counters Wisconsin Senator Feingold. ``We have to examine what it means for the society.... That is a maturing in our understanding of science.''
The public has a role in the approval of new technologies. Currently, companies with new products get approval to carry out testing from the FDA, conduct their own tests or fund a university research project, and then provide all the information for FDA review. The information is often closely held, because the companies don't want to give out their secrets.
But by reviewing the experiments that have been published, at least two scientists have published articles suggesting that the FDA review is inadequate. Samuel Epstein, a professor of medicine at the University of Illinois Medical Center, warns that public health threats have not been investigated in depth. Longtime BST researcher David Kronfeld, now at Virginia Tech, contends that the production response of BST on cows is much more varied than the companies say it is and that the additional stress placed on cows needs to be studied in their offspring.
A full review of the proprietary studies would allay such fears, counters James Lauderdale, director of growth and reproduction research at Upjohn.
Indeed, raising consumer doubts about incomplete research is circumventing the federal approval process, adds Philip Sheldon, an Upjohn spokesman. ``The product has to get to the marketplace, then let the dairyman decide. But to cut off the research, that isn't fair.''
The majority of university scientists who have studied BST believe it is safe. As of June 1, at least 161 trials of BST involving 11,337 cows had been completed in North America as well as 113 trials involving 10,151 cows abroad.
This atmosphere of charge and countercharge is a bad way to conduct food policy, some food-industry officials say. What is needed is an organization that consumers can trust. Given its recent cancellations on farm chemicals in longtime use and a current bribe scandal in its human health section, the FDA may no longer be able to fill that role.
When an FDA employee recently warned Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont that the department's studies of BST on cows were inadequate, Senator Leahy renewed his earlier call for an unprecedented independent scientific review of the agency's BST analysis. The proposed Wisconsin legislation would conduct a similar independent study of BST's health effects, as well as its economic impact.
Consumers have not yet had their say about whom they trust on food-safety issues. But a 1986 focus-group study for the National Dairy Board offers an intriguing hint. It found that even FDA assurances about safety could not convince the many skeptics.
Commonly, ``consumers feel the FDA is probably trying to do the right thing, but that the state of the art falls far short of omniscience and prescience,'' the report said.