‘Beefalo’ vs. Buffalo

  • Some American bison are contaminated with cow genes. The genes are left over from the early days of cross-breeding. (Photo by Paul Frederickson, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In iconic images of the Great Plains, you always see the land dotted with bison. Those bison helped make the prairies what they were. But the bison that you see on prairie preserves today are not exactly the same as the ones that once roamed the plains. The Environment Report’s Charity Nebbe has more:


We have a handful of ranchers to thank for the fact that we have any bison today. At one point there were only about a thousand and now there are half a million. Bob Hamilton is the Director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. He says the ranchers who saved the bison also put them at risk.

“Part of their motivation was also to see if they could cross breed bison with domestic livestock to see if they could produce a hardier winter resistant ‘beefalo’.”

The beefalo were not hardy and the ranchers abandoned their project, but the cattle genes remain. Bob Hamilton’s herd consists of 2,700 bison. Thanks to genetic testing, Hamilton has been able to weed out all of the bison carrying the most damaging kind of cattle DNA. But, there is some genetic material he just can’t get rid of. Chances are, there will always be a little bit of beef in the buffalo.

For the Environment Report I’m Charity Nebbe.

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Starlink Corn Still Present in Some Supplies

A type of genetically engineered corn that was pulled from the market more than three years ago is still showing up in small amounts of the nation’s corn supply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports:


A type of genetically engineered corn that was pulled from the market more than
three years ago is still showing up in small amounts of the nation’s corn supply.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman reports:

Starlink corn was designed to be resistant to certain pests. But concerns over
possible health effects on humans led the government to limit its use to corn
grown for feeding livestock.

But when traces of Starlink were detected in taco shells in 2000, the genetically
modified corn was pulled from the market. Today, voluntary testing is conducted
by the USDA on growers who suspect their corn might be contaminated with
Starlink. Those tests have shown that Starlink is still present in trace amounts.

Rick Johns is an associate biology professor at Northern Illinois University. He
says it’s possible Starlink will be around for many years to come.

“Farmers aren’t necessarily good at keeping everything separate. The grain bins,
for example, are not well segregated – human food versus animal food – it’s all
together in one big bin. Even if you clean the bin out there’s lots of excess seeds
left inside of it. Similarly for the trucks, similarly for the grain elevators.”

A study by the Centers for Disease Control found no conclusive evidence of
allergic reaction to Starlink corn.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.

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Benefits and Risks of Cloned Cows

Milk production is big business in the upper Midwest. Now, the president of a biotech company in Wisconsin is milking a herd of cloned cows that he says could give the Great Lakes dairy industry a boost, but there are still questions about the health of cloned cows, and whether the milk they produce is safe for human consumption. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Gil Halsted has the story:


Milk production is big business in the upper Midwest. Now the president of a biotech company in Wisconsin is milking a herd of cloned cows that he says could give the Great Lakes dairy industry a boost. But there are still questions about the health of cloned cows and whether the milk they produce is safe for human consumption. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Gil Halsted reports:

(Sound of milk splashing into a sink)

Just outside the milking parlor at the Infigen Dairy a steady stream of milk is flowing from a pipe into a sink. It gurgles down the drain into another pipe that leads to a holding tank. Infigen president Michael Bishop says the milk is perfectly safe and nutritious but when the day’s milking is done he’ll get rid of it.

“Right now that milk is worth 15, 16 dollars a hundredweight and we’re dumpin’ it.”

The milk Bishop is dumping comes from 23 cloned cows. He produced them by removing the genetic material from an unfertilized cow egg and then inserting the DNA from the ear of a cow he wanted to reproduce. The result is a herd of cows that looks uncannily identical. There are no regulations requiring Bishop to dump the milk from his herd. But the FDA has asked all owners of cloned livestock to keep food products from their animals off the market until the agency decides whether or not to regulate them. The FDA is waiting for a National Academy of Sciences report on animal cloning due out later this spring before it makes a decision.

FDA spokesperson Stephen Sundlof says even if the report includes no red flags on food products from clones, the agency may require tests on the milk from cloned cows before it goes on the market.

“That would be to look compositionally at milk from cloned animals and compare that to milk from non-cloned animals to see if there was any substantial differences. But other than that we would likely find that those products were in fact identical to normal milk produced by uncloned animals.”

Michael Bishop is confident the milk his cloned cows are producing is perfectly safe for human consumption. In fact he says he’s already run the kind of test Sundlof is talking about comparing the milk of his cloned cows with the milk from cows at a neighboring dairy.

“Nothing new in the cloned cows… but there were variants in the bulk tank of a neighbor dairy, so it really turns out that the food product is more predictable. It’s gonna be the same in a cloned animal.”

But critics of cloning food say there are still lots of unanswered questions. Infigen isn’t the only company cloning dairy cows and several consumer groups are lobbying the FDA to put some strong regulations in place before milk from any of the diaries using the procedure is allowed on supermarket shelves. Joseph Mendelsen is with the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. He says there are a number of potential health problems for cloned cows. For instance they may be more susceptible to mastitis, and may require more use of antibiotics.

“Are there possibly subtle genetic differences that may affect the nutritional quality of the milk? I don’t think those issues have been looked at and they’re certainly not gonna be looked at with the scrutiny I think that consumers expect if we don’t have a mandatory regulatory system looking at cloned animals and the products derived from them.”

Infigen’s Michael Bishop agrees that regulations to insure the quality of the milk may be necessary, and he’s in favor of labeling the milk from cloned cows so consumers can make an informed choice.

“Americans are used to having choices and I believe they should have this choice. Let’s let science prove one way or the other if there’s a difference and then let’s let the marketplace decide if that product is going to be acceptable.”

Critics of cloning all say labeling should be required for food from cloned animals. But they’re even more concerned about the affect clones will have on genetic diversity. John Peck is the executive director of the Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders. He says an increase in the number of cows with identical genes will reduce the range of genetic diversity. And that means, he says, that herds of cloned cattle will be even more likely to face problems from disease and viruses.

“If you’re basically engineering in this uniformity, you’re also engineering susceptibility to catastrophic events, which we’ve seen that with other crops that are genetically engineered or hybrids that are vulnerable to one form of blight or rust or something that comes in from afar. The big question then is, who’s gonna pay for that? You know are the consumers gonna foot the bill when a factory farm of two thousand dairy cows all gets wiped out by one virus?”

But Michael Bishop says his cloned cows will not be any more at risk for disease than the original healthy cows they were cloned from. He predicts that once cloning catches on, farmers running large commercial dairies will begin adding clones to their herds to increase their efficiency.

“Because they’ll actually be able to create a more uniform consistent product from cow to cow to cow, and be able to predict how much hay, how much feed, and exactly what the outcome’s gonna be. Is it gonna be thirty thousand, thirty one thousand, thirty two thousand pounds of milk from the inputs they put in.”

how quickly large dairies turn to cloning for economic advantage though depends a lot on whether the FDA decides to impose restrictions on the milk the cloned cows produce.

For Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Gil Halsted.

Engineering a Cleaner Pig

Like most farmers, hog farmers have seen a shift from small, family-owned farms, to large-scale hog operations, but more pigs on less land creates some major environmental problems – especially, what to do with all that manure. Bio-tech researchers in Canada believe they have created an animal that will help. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:


Canadian researchers have developed a genetically altered
salmon. Dubbed "Frankenfish" by the public, the designer salmon grow
about eight times faster – and as much as 37 times larger – than normal
salmon. While fish farmers are hoping to bring their latest catch to
a dinner table near you, Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator
Suzanne Elston finds the whole thing rather unappetizing:

Commentary – Changing Our Genetic Future

Last week (week of April 3rd) a report released by the National
Academy of Sciences stated that it was not aware of any evidence that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat. This is just the latest
news concerning this controversial issue. But Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston wonders if we’re not making the entire issue too complicated:

Agri-Chemical Merger Stirs GMO Debate

A corporate merger between two large agri-chemical companies
will create the world’s largest pesticide manufacturer. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… some environmentalists are
concerned the new company’s approach will mean more pesticide use:


A corporate merger between two large agri-chemical companies will create the world’s largest

pesticide manufacturer. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports some

environmentalists are concerned the new company’s approach will mean pore pesticide use:

The chemical and agriculture companies Novartis and Astra-Zeneca are in the process of merging

their agriculture divisions. The new company, Syngenta, will go its own way sometime in 2000.

Syngenta will be the world’s largest pesticide producer, and the third largest producer of

genetically modified seeds. Some environmentalists are concerned about the merger. Lori Mott is

with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Well, it’s a potentially dangerous mix because one of the areas where genetically modified

organisms are being developed is to make them pesticide resistant. So, you could have the largest

seller of pesticides also making the seeds that are resistant to the very pesticides that they

sell and the end result would be excessive use of pesticides – as if we don’t already have that –

out in the environment with severe environmental consequences.”

Mott says the new company will likely focus on creating herbicides and design genes to make crops

resistant to them. She says that will encourage farmers to use pesticides even more because they

know it won’t harm their crops. Astra-Zeneca already has a pesticide and pesticide-resistant crop

seed package. Novartis is working on one. Both of those product packages will now be part of the

Syngenta line. Other companies such as Monsanto and DuPont also have genetically modified crops

resistant to their respective pesticides.

A financial analyst says it’s possible the merger might mean less use of certain pesticides. One

of the companies involved in the merger, Novartis, manufactures atrazine. It’s the herbicide most

used on crops in the Midwest. Atrazine has developed negative reputation because drinking water in

some lakes and wells has been contaminated by the herbicide.

Alexander Hittle is an analyst with A.G. Edwards and Sons. Hittle says if Syngenta pushes an

herbicide and genetically-altered crop package, it might mean atrazine is used less.

“Atrazine sales are actually really being in part driven by resistance to genetically modified

crops. Either way, the farmers are going to be using pesticides, herbicides. Is the herbicide

being used in one of these seed combinations more or less benign than an herbicide that would be

used under so-called conventional farming. And, I think that’s the way, in terms of the

environment, the question needs to be posed.”

Because some of the new generation herbicides break down faster, they don’t have the same

reputation for contamination problems atrazine does.

Pesticides aren’t the only thing about the merger worrying environmentalists and others. Until

recently, genetically modified crops were more or less ignored by the American public. But,

because of food safety and environmental concerns, some people are becoming wary of the

bio-engineered plants. Public opinion might shift again in the near future. Hittle says so far,

the traits of the genetically engineered crops have only benefited farmers and the ag-chemical

companies. If consumers see a direct benefit, he thinks they’ll be more accepting.

“Down the road what’s coming are crops that have improved nutritional profiles, so that you’ll

begin to see benefits to consumers and that’s probably where the tide will turn. And, Novartis,

Astra-Zeneca both have pretty strong research capabilities and that should play into those sorts

of products.”

Farmers will be watching for the new products and the whims of the market as public opinion about

genetically modified food evolves. Don Parrish is with the American Farm Bureau. He agrees that

people eventually will accept the new technology.

“But, I guess as consumers see the benefits of what it could mean more lean, tender products, more

nutritious products, you know, I just have a hard time believing that people won’t believe in

good, sound science and won’t ultimately allow that to dictate what is safe for the marketplace.”

The Farm Bureau adds… genetically altered crops will be necessary to feed the world’s growing


Environmentalists say advances in food production should not come at the expense of environmental

damage. The NRDC’s Lori Mott says the Astra-Zeneca and Novartis ag divisions’ merger rushes

headlong into a genetically-altered future that might have serious consequences.

“I think the whole issue of genetically modified organisms is a dicey one. We are changing the

scale of evolution…”

One interesting twist of the Syngenta merger: Novartis will be keeping its baby food line, Gerber

Foods. This past year, Gerber declared it would not allow genetically modified crops into its baby

food – something of a contradiction inside a corporation that has touted the safety of genetically

modified foods. Novartis will keep Gerber, and spin off its genetically modified foods section to

the new company, Syngenta.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Food Giant Drops Genetically Modified Spuds

Genetically modified foods have gotten the cold shoulder from
consumers in Europe… and now, resistance to engineered food seems to
be growing in Canada. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy
Nelson reports:

Detecting Genetically Altered Crops

With growing concerns over the safety of genetically-altered food, some
farmers and processors are trying to segregate crops that have not been
genetically altered. But that can be hard, because you can’t tell them
apart just by looking… now, there’s a new test to detect genetically
engineered crops. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson