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Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormones

The dangers and lies that surround one of Monsanto's key products

The Ecologist: The Monsanto Files, October 1998

The classic Monsanto combination of bad science, misleading claims, the silencing and rubbishing of opponents and the hushing-up of problems, is abundantly evident in the case of the corporation's first commercially-available genetically-modified product: bovine growth hormone.

Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH - also known as Bovine Somatotropin, or BST) is a genetically engineered copy of a naturally-occurring hormone produced by cows. The purpose of rBGH is to enable cows to produce more milk than they naturally would. It works by altering gene expression of glucose transporters in the cow's mammary gland, skeletal muscle and omental fat. The gene facilitates the repartitioning of glucose to the mammary gland, which in turn produces more milk.

Cows injected with a daily dose of Monsanto's rBGH - marketed under the brand name Posilac - are generally expected to increase their milk yield by between 10 and 20%. However, the problems and side-effects associated with rBGH are legion. Such are its actual and potential dangers that it is banned in Canada, the European Union and a number of other countries, despite the best efforts of Monsanto to prise open those markets. However, rBGH has been in use in other countries - most notably the USA - for some years. And it is from there that the bad news has been emerging.

Who Benefits?
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared rBGH officially "safe" in 1993, and Monsanto began selling Posilac to dairy farmers in February of the next year. In the USA there are two obvious benefits of its widespread use: an estimated annual income for Monsanto of between $300 and $500 million, and an estimated 12% increase in the nation's supply of milk. Yet since the 1950s, America's dairies have consistently produced more milk than the nation can consume, the surplus being bought up every year by the Federal Government to prevent the price from plummeting. In the period 1980-85, the US government spent an average of $2.1 billion every year buying surplus milk. No-one in the US needs the extra milk that Posilac can provide.

Animal Wrongs
The real beneficiaries of rBGH use in the States have been, unsurprisingly, Monsanto themselves. The losers have included the animals treated with the hormone, and the farmers who own them.

Normally, for about twelve weeks after a cow calves, she produces milk at the expense of her health. The cow loses weight, is infertile and is more susceptible to diseases. Eventually, milk output diminishes and the cow's body begins to recover. By injecting rBGH, a farmer can postpone that recovery for another 8 to 12 weeks, substantially increasing the cow's milk output, but also rendering her more susceptible to disease.

For a comprehensive list of the potential ill-effects of rBGH on cows, one need look no further than the warning label which the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) requires Monsanto to include in every shipment of Posilac. The label outlines 21 health problems associated with the use of Posilac, including cystic ovaries, uterine disorders, decrease in gestation length and birth weight of calves, increased twinning rates and retained placentas.

Potentially the most serious problem, however, is the increased risk of mastitis, or inflammation of the udder. A cow with mastitis produces milk with pus in it. Dairies will not accept milk which has an abnormally high somatic cell count (ie, a high proportion of pus), and mastitis can thus be a serious source of lost revenue to the dairy farmer. Many farmers seek to treat the problem with antibiotics, but antibiotic residues in milk are suspected of causing health problems in humans who drink it, as well as contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria.

Concerned by the potential effects of rBGH, the US National Farmers Union (NFU) set up an rBGH telephone hotline in 1994, for farmers to report any problems associated with Posilac. Hundreds of farmers called the hotline. John Shumway, a New York State dairy farmer, told the hotline that he had had to replace 50 cows as a result of adverse reactions to Posilac. His estimated losses from the use of rBGH came to about $100,000. Melvin Van Heel, a Minnesota farmer, experienced mastitis, abortions and open sores in his rBGH-treated cows. "I got more milk, but I didn't think it was worth it," he said. Michigan farmer Steve Schulte reported that his vet's bill fell dramatically after he stopped using rBGH. Florida Farmer Al Cole lost 8 cows and had to cull an additional 15. Three others later gave birth to deformed calves.

The NFU has a record of many more such complaints. Such is the dissatisfaction, that farmers all over the States are giving up using the hormone. In 1995, the NFU reported that "in some areas of the country, farmers are reporting that 60 to 90 percent or more of the farms that have tried BGH have discontinued its use."

The Human Health Risks
Even leaving aside the health problems caused by antibiotic residues in milk - a side effect of an increase in mastitis - the effects of rBGH on human health could be devastating. Most worrying are scientific studies linking rBGH to cancer.

When a cow is injected with rBGH, its presence in the blood stimulates production of another hormone, called Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), a naturally-occurring hormone-protein in both cows and humans. The use of rBGH increases the levels of IGF-1 in the cow's milk. Because IGF-1 is active in humans - causing cells to divide - some scientists believe that ingesting high levels of it in rBGH-treated milk could lead to uncontrolled cell division and growth in humans - in other words, cancer.

Monsanto have naturally been keen to deny that IGF-1 levels in rBGH treated milk could be high enough to pose a threat. Writing in The Lancet in 1994, the company's researchers claimed that "there is no evidence that hormonal content of milk from rBST treated cows is in any way different from cows not so treated." Yet in a later issue of the same journal, a British researcher pointed out that Monsanto had admitted, in 1993, that "the IGF-1 level [in milk] went up substantially [about five times as much.]" when rBGH was used.

A number of studies have since warned of the effects of excess IGF-1. Two British researchers reported in 1994 that IGF-1 induced cell division in human cells. The next year, a separate study discovered that IGF-1 promoted the growth of cancer tumours in laboratory animals, by preventing natural cell death.
In 1996, Dr Samuel Epstein, from the University of Chicago, conducted a detailed study of the potential effects of increased levels of IGF-1 on humans. Epstein's resulting, peer-reviewed, paper found that IGF-1 from rBGH treated cows may lead to breast and colon cancer in human milk-drinkers. Epstein's fiery conclusion was that "with the complicity of the FDA, the entire nation is currently being subjected to an experiment involving large-scale adulteration of an age-old dietary staple by a poorly characterised and unlabelled biotechnology product….it poses major potential health risks for the entire US population."
Two studies published earlier this year seem to back Epstein's findings. A study of American women published in The Lancet in May found a seven-fold increased risk of breast cancer among pre-menopausal women with high levels of IGF-1 in their blood. A separate study published in Science in January found a four-fold increase in risk of prostate cancer among men with high levels of IGF-1 in their blood.

Hormone Economics
Quite apart from the health risks associated with rBGH, its increased use across the world would contribute to the decline of the small farm and the monopolisation of agriculture by multinational corporations. Basic economics tells us that an increase in the supply of a product leads to a fall in its price. The US government has only avoided an overall crash in milk prices in recent decades by buying up surplus milk. If widespread use of rBGH in any country leads to a significant increase in milk supply, and if the government is unable or unwilling to buy up any surplus, the resulting dramatic fall in prices will drive small farmers to the wall and ensure, as many other aspects of the 'Green revolution' have done, that big, intensive, high-technology farms are the ones that survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Gagging The Critics
Monsanto's response to those who dare to criticise rBGH has been par for the corporation's course: intimidation, lawsuits, manipulation of facts and expensive propaganda. In this they have been aided and abetted, in the US, by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), which has been referred to by critics as 'Monsanto's Washington Office' (see elsewhere in this issue).

The first response by the Monsanto/FDA axis to concerns about rBGH in milk (US surveys have consistently shown that more than 70% of respondents do not want to drink it) was to turn to the law. In 1994, the FDA warned retailers not to label milk that was free of rBGH - thus effectively removing from consumers the right to choose what they drank. The FDA's main justification for this was that, in their words, there was "virtually" no difference between rBGH-treated milk and ordinary milk. Labelling would thus unfairly discriminate against companies like Monsanto.

The FDA official responsible for developing this labelling policy was one Michael R. Taylor. Before moving to the FDA, he was a partner in the law firm that represented Monsanto as it applied for FDA approval for Posilac. He has now moved back to work for Monsanto.

As a result of this policy, the FDA threatened retailers with legal action if they dared to label their milk 'BGH-free'. Monsanto itself filed two lawsuits against milk processors who labelled their milk, and posted warnings to others not to do so. The American ice cream makers Ben and Jerry, who have always refused to use BGH-treated milk, recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Illinois, which ruled that they cannot label their products 'BGH-free'.

Monsanto and its allies have even used the US Constitution to prevent consumers knowing what is in the milk they drink. In April 1994, the State of Vermont passed a law requiring that products containing rBGH must be clearly labelled. A coalition of dairy industries and Monsanto immediately filed a suit asserting that the new law was "unconstitutional", on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment, which asserts a constitutional right not to be forced to disclose information. Monsanto won.

Faced with growing consumer outrage at these tactics, Monsanto has now reluctantly abandoned its lawsuits against retailers, and labelling milk 'BGH-free' is now permitted in the US. But the FDA still refuses to require producers to do so: even now, many people have no idea what's really in their milk.

In other areas of society, Monsanto has also been accused of underhand methods as it tries to cover up the truth about rBGH. The now-notorious 'Fox TV Episode' (see elsewhere in this issue), where the corporation was accused of forcing a documentary about rBGH off the air, is but one obvious example. In their book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton recount one episode in 1990 where the corporation's PR firm sent a 'mole' to a meeting of anti-rBGH campaigners. The 'mole', posing as a concerned housewife, was in fact an employee of Monsanto's PR firm Burson-Marsteller, sent to discover in advance what the opposition's tactics would be.

Down at the grassroots, American farmers have reported many instances of Monsanto officials playing down, disguising or trying to cover up the adverse effects of rBGH, including telling farmers that their mastitis problems were unique, or that health problems that arose after using Posilac were the fault of the farmer, rather than the drug.

When it first gave Monsanto permission to market Posilac, the FDA obliged the corporation to report any related animal-health problems back to the FDA. Surprisingly, according to the testimonies of farmers, Monsanto has, on several occasions, apparently 'forgotten' to do this. Moreover, even the FDA has accepted that the company has, in the past, seriously exaggerated its estimates of the number of farmers using Posilac in the USA.

Monsanto's conduct in this, as in so many other matters relating to rBGH, has been less than honest. Is it surprising then, that their current claims to welcome an 'open debate' about biotechnology are so often greeted with several lorryloads of salt?