Retiring dairy scientist ponders pseudo-science, fear marketers

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At the end of the month, I will be retiring from Ohio State University. After nearly 20 years spent in the classroom, in the dairy barn, in the lab, and traveling throughout the state, the nation and the world, I will be shutting the door to my office for the last time.

I will miss the students… well, not all of them, but most. I’ll let you guess as to how much I will be missing the university administration.

Changes in the landscape

When I started as an OSU Extension specialist two decades ago, Ohio’s annual milk production had stagnated between 4.2 and 4.4 billion pounds per year for nearly two decades while the national milk production had increased by more than 50 percent. This decline in the state’s share of the national production was alarming and jeopardized the long-term competitiveness of some of our dairy processors.

Fortunately, the hard work of many of our dairy leaders has been fruitful, with total annual milk production now at around 5.5 billion pounds.

Pennsylvania has also seen significant changes.

I think that our industry is in good hands, with many young and energetic people moving into leadership positions.

The black clouds

I still scratch my head over the marketing of dairy products and the hoaxes and urban legends that are associated with certain means of production.

The first time I had to get involved with one of these issues was with the labeling of milk and the use of bovine somatotropin, better known as rbST and rbGH. From a consumer safety standpoint, rbST is a safer technology than feeding corn. Corn can contain mycotoxins such as aflatoxins that can be metabolized into highly toxic substances secreted in the milk… but I don’t loose sleep over this because barley can also contain toxins, as well as forages and pastures…

Some of the welfare and animal safety issues that had been raised (without much if any data at all) have been scientifically shown to be inexistent. Yet, as an industry, we have allowed a few “not without reproach activists” teaming up with clever marketers to convince a minority of customers that there is something wrong with the technology.

Hence, because of logistical and regulatory nightmares that would be associated with an additional separate supply of milk, producers have lost the right to choose whether or not to adopt this technology in their herds.

The wrong storm

Then came the uproar over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some have portrayed this technology as the next plague to annihilate mankind. Moving a gene from one species to another has been portrayed as highly unnatural.

The problem with this thinking is that nature does this trillions of times every day. This is the way that most viruses work. They invade a cell and insert their own DNA into the host DNA. The infected host cell becomes the cloning unit for millions of new viral DNA.

Likewise, bacteria exchange plasmids (DNA) across species, which is how antibiotic resistance is passed from one bacterial species to another. If you think that this inter-species exchange only occurs in microbes, then think again.

Your own cells contain organelles called mitochondria. They have been called the cell’s batteries because much of the energy production within a cell occurs there. They also contain some DNA, which is different than the DNA in the nucleus. This DNA originated a few billion years ago when one cell (what is now a mitochondria) invaded another cell and decided to live within it in symbiosis.

Hence, our own cells contain the cells and DNA of another organism.

Extensive research

The potential issue with GMO is not GMO, but the traits being transferred. Like saying “fire,” saying “GMO” doesn’t tell you whether something is good or not.

A campfire is good (think s’mores); a house on fire is not.

The traits that we have in our commercial GMO crops have been extensively studied and have no chance of causing issues to the animals they are being fed to, or to humans. Genes are not absorbed through the digestive system. Mankind has been eating chickens for a long time, yet no one has grown a comb or wattles.

There were some potential environmental issues with some traits, but these have proven to be insignificant and far less consequential than the pesticide applications that they replace.

The GMO “issue” has been entirely fabricated.

Gluten-free milk

The latest big food craze — until the next one shows up — is related to the presence of gluten in food.

Gluten is a protein (actually a mixture of two proteins) present in cereal grains, especially wheat. It causes illness in genetically predisposed people with celiac disease, which affects 1 in 100 people worldwide. For the rest of us, the 99 out of each 100 people, gluten is just another protein that we digest like most other proteins in our diet.

But this reality didn’t stop the food alarmists and charlatan marketers. Hence, we now have milk jugs labeled as “gluten-free” in complete disregard with the obvious fact that all milk is gluten-free. One of these days I will start selling turpentine-free milk!

What to do?

Frankly, I don’t know what to do.

We have now the emergence of A2 milk, the latest marketing hoax. I spent the better part of half an hour on the phone explaining to a journalist that this is nothing short of a scientific hoax: a so-called “finding” from a New Zealand scientist that nobody else has been able to confirm.

I thought that I had done a pretty good job at educating this reporter until I read the article she wrote touting the potential virtues of A2 milk. Hopeless!

Then we have coconut milk… and almond milk… and all sorts of “milk” from things that don’t have and never had mammary glands. So I don’t know what to tell you.

As for me, I am sailing into my retirement perfectly content with consuming a lactose-laced beverage saturated with nasty casein and dangerous (albeit tasty) fat.

I will keep saluting all of you each time I drink a glass of the dangerous milk that the dairymen of this country have produced for me.

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Normand St-Pierre is an Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.

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