I recently subscribed to AcresUSA magazine, “The Voice of Eco-Agriculture,” after realizing that I’ve been referencing a lot of their online articles lately. They have some interesting writing, often pursuing agricultural subjects that are rather futuristic-thinking, and maybe a little bit renegade. Thought-provoking, anyway.
This recent article on A1 versus A2 cow’s milk is really intriguing (December 2009 issue, interview with Keith Woodford on page 60). I’ll let you read the article to gain a full understanding of the issue rather than trying to explain it all in my own words. In a nutshell, there has been a discovery that a long time ago, the domestic dairy cow population experienced a genetic mutation that resulted in an strain of cows (called A1) which vary from the “original” genetic design (called A2). This mutation impacts a casein protein in their milk, and there is some evidence that this protein variation could be linked to a host of human maladies, including diabetes, autism, and heart disease.
It turns out that the A1 cow population is largely isolated to the Holstein (called Friesian in other parts of the world) breed of dairy cow. Since Holsteins are generally considered the world’s premier dairy cow, there are a lot of them, and thus a lot of A1 cows, in the world. Other breeds of cows have much less, or no incidence of the A1 gene; and it does not exist in other milk-producing animals, such as goats and sheep.
So, hmm, it’s interesting to think that this may resonate with the anecdotal experience of many people who have trouble with cow’s milk, or some cow’s milk, but find they are OK with sheep and goat milk. (I’ve read some accounts of people who consider themselves “lactose intolerant” now, but remember being OK with drinking their non-Holstein home dairy cow’s milk as a child.) I know I have had a controversial relationship with milk myself, and eliminated it from my diet for many years because I felt it was causing me problems (indigestion, gut aches, acne etc). I drink it again now, but I still find that some days, it doesn’t sit well with me, and other days, it’s OK. This does make me wonder- could it be A1 milk that’s bothering me? I wish I could buy A2-only milk to see!
The most interesting part about this A1 versus A2 issue, to me, is the ramifications it is having for dairy cow producers. There is a DNA test available to determine whether a cow is A1 or A2. The inheritance pattern is simple, so breeding away from the gene is a trivial matter-just like how we are easily able to breed away from the “Q” scrapie gene in sheep. So even before more scientific evidence becomes available to confirm or deny the link to health problems, it seems it would make sense to move forward with eliminating this gene from the population and return to the “original” A2 gene. Just to be safe.
And, apparently, that’s exactly what is happening in New Zealand and Australia, the region in which the issue was first discovered more than a decade ago. It has gotten a lot of press there. So, consumer attention and demand has motivated many dairy cow farmers there to voluntarily start eliminating the A1 gene from their populations. (But, it’s easier for them, because they have fewer Friesians, and more Guernseys and Jerseys there.) There is a company that sells A2-only milk to discerning consumers. The trend is growing all on its own, with no government or registry body regulation. Just supply and demand.
For the States, the issue is a bit tougher, since almost all of our dairy cows are Holsteins and likely half of them are A1. If consumers start getting excited about this, the pressure on dairy cow producers to respond by breeding away from A1 will be tremendous. But, they’ll need time- as with any genetic reduction breeding strategy, it takes several or many generations to achieve the goal. So, it is concerning to think that if this issue does start getting attention here, consumers may panic and stop drinking milk altogether, further devastating an industry that’s already in crisis.
But given that our dairy industry is already in a crisis, and thousands of dairy cows are being taken out of production to reduce supply, now would have been a perfect time to take the A1 cows out of production and get a jump start on re-aligning the population to A2-only genetics. But for whatever reason, this issue hasn’t taken hold in our country, so not a lot of activity is happening with it.
The scientific claims linking A1 milk to health issues are still being debated, and probably will be for a decade to come. It will probably be hard to get funding for research to further prove the link, because there is no industry group (yet) who is motivated to pay for it.
But shoot, if I were a dairy cow producer, I’d definitely be paying attention to this! It could either be seen as a scary threat on the horizon, or an awesome economic opportunity to catch the wave of new consumer demand for “special” milk that is linked to better health! (However loose the link may be-consumers generally don’t care, if your marketing is good! ;-) )
And, if you’re a dairy goat or sheep producer, or a heritage breed cattle breeder, give your A2-milk-making ladies a hug today. We might find their milk in greater demand in the future if this issue does eventually take off in America!