For our Human Practices, our team project was inspired by interviews with local farmers, which are described below. We also interviewed Dietician Dr. Anne C. Rogan and Dr. Raphael Strauss, an allergist, to learn about how milk consumption affects human health. To learn more about the market for A2 milk and current testing options, we searched the literature and investigated the business of genetic testing of livestock. Finally, we ran a virtual summer science camp with Middle School students, “Engineering with Biology.” The camp is described on our Education page.
Interview with Local Small Farm Owners
Our team decided that we wanted to do a project to help local farmers, however no one knew much about farming in the area. We decided that we wanted to interview some local farmers in order to gain perspective on the issues surrounding smallholder farming. We were able to interview two local farmers, John Tauzel and Jeff Darling (Figure 1). John Tauzel is a former dairy farmer who switched to beef farming. Tauzel runs a small farming operation, as he owns around 170 cows, and runs a conventional farm which isn’t organic certified. Jeff Darling runs a certified organic dairy farm with 175 cows, which is a small farming operation. Currently, Darling sells his milk to Horizons Organic, but is interested in transitioning to processing his own milk. From conducting both interviews, we learned that many small farmers struggle to stay afloat. To keep their farms afloat, farmers must get creative, exploring new ways to cut costs, increase profits, or shift their operations to more profitable products.
For John Tauzel, this has meant changing the type of farming he does. Originally a dairy farmer, he struggled to make ends meet with the fact that commodity prices are variable, meaning that the price they get for a product will change every year. Due to these changes, many dairy farmers have switched to beef farming, as the price they can sell beef at is more reliable. He has also diversified his operation by selling produce at local farmers markets. Selling directly to consumers allows him to keep more of the sale price of fruits and vegetables, by cutting out the middleman share.
Jeff Darling, on the other hand, has chosen to remain in the dairy industry. He switched his operation from conventional dairy, to organic dairy. By switching to organic, his milk commands a higher price when he sells it to companies than it would if it were not organically produced. He informed us that these types of niche markets are much more profitable. He told about the emerging market for A2 milk here in the US, and that he is planning on having his herd genetically tested, to determine if any of the cows carry the A2 version of the beta-casein (CSN2) gene. He hopes to selectively breed these animals, to create an A2 herd. However, breeding A2 cows isn’t easy, as the genetic testing of cows is costly and time consuming.
Our team was inspired after talking with both small farmers. We wanted to tackle an iGEM project that would help farmers like John Tauzel and Jeff Darling. Therefore, we decided that in order to help farmers remain competitive, we would work to create a field adaptable genetic testing system that could be used to genotype the CSN2 gene. We want our detector to be a quick and cheap alternative to standard genetic testing for cows. By making this detector, farmers would be able to determine which cows they should breed to create A2 herds, helping more small farmers to enter a new niche market with the potential for greater profit margins.
Interview with an Allergist
Taking our inspiration from local farmers for our project idea, we now had more questions regarding the health impacts of milk. We wanted to know more information on whether the beta-casein protein in cow’s milk had anything to do with people being or not being lactose intolerant and if A2 milk had any significant benefits. To find this out we interviewed an allergist on Long Island, Dr. Raphael Strauss, to learn his opinion. Dr. Raphael Strauss runs and practices medicine for allergy and asthma. After reaching out, Dr. Raphael Strauss sadly could not give us any data showing any the significant benefits from the A2 milk, indicating that there is currently no known consensus amongst allergists on the health impacts of beta-casein protein variants. He did, however, emphasize that people who are truly lactose intolerant need to consume lactose free milk.
Interview with a Dietician
We also interviewed a specialist in nutrition, Dr. Ann C. Rogan, and have provided a summary of the interview. Dr. Rogan was able to give us more information on the molecular components of milk. She explained that the prevalence of A1 milk in the United States is because Holstein cows are the predominant breed. They make only A1 milk. The reason for they are the main breed in this country is economic- they produce the most milk per pound of feed. Finally, Dr. Rogan noted that there have been studies that have shown that incorporating A2 milk into the diet can promote better digestive health and reduce inflammation, digestive discomfort, and bloating. There have also been correlations to A2 milk reducing the risk of some cardiovascular diseases, perhaps due to the different ratio of lactose to fat observed between the two milk types.
Investigating Current A2 Testing Methods
We researched different companies involved in the detection of the A2 gene. Each company has a unique system that allows them to provide a service for those in need. The information recorded on the document includes specific protocols and resources each company uses. Also, specifies each individual company claims and skepticism.
This document was designed to aid our team by providing more background information. Each company provided helpful tips to create a successful system. Lastly, few were able to describe their errors and how they improved said errors, which will help prevent our team from making those same errors.