Monsanto's Bovine Growth
The dangers and lies that surround one of Monsanto's
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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?