By Donella Meadows
–March 29, 1990–
In Wisconsin dairy farmers are picketing and lobbyists are circling, while the governor decides whether to sign a temporary ban on bovine growth hormone (BGH).
Monsanto executives have descended into Vermont in corporate jets to contest the decision that milk produced with BGH shall not be allowed in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
In New Hampshire a moratorium on the use of BGH was narrowly defeated by the lobbyists’ slogan, “Let’s keep Congress out of the cow barn.”
Just about anywhere there’s a dairy cow, there’s a ruckus about what proponents call BST, for bovine somatotropin (which has a nice high-tech sound), and what opponents call BGH, for bovine growth hormone (which sounds like something you might not want to find in your milk). In the interest of plain speaking I’ll say BGH, bovine growth hormone, here, because what we are talking about is in fact a hormone that makes bovines grow.
BGH is normally produced in the body of a cow. It stimulates many of her metabolic processes, especially lactation. It is present in her milk in high quantities just after she gives birth; it enhances the growth of her calf. Industry has learned through bioengineering how to make the stuff in vats. When BGH is injected into a cow once every 14 days, at levels much higher than she would naturally produce, it increases her milk production by as much as 20 percent.
The pros and cons of BGH are hotly argued and far from certain. Its possible advantages seem to be:
1. It could create a nice, patented product for the companies prepared to manufacture it (Monsanto, Eli Lilly, Upjohn, and American Cyanamid). Farmers who adopt it will be hooked on a resupply every two weeks. It could finally deliver the glittering promise of profitable biotechnology that has been held out to investors for so long.
2. It could, if production really rises by 20 percent and if feed bills, vet bills, and cow losses rise by less than that, allow farmers to cut costs and increase profits.
The disadvantages of BGH might be:
1. It could show up in milk. Manufacturers claim that it does not enter milk in abnormal quantities, and if it did, it would not be harmful to humans. Opponents quote trials in which milk from treated cows contains levels of BGH a thousand times higher than normal. They say that human cellular receptors for BGH are identical to bovine ones, and therefore that human metabolism might be affected by the hormone.
Industry accuses these critics of being “food terrorists who scare people into thinking there is something wrong with biotechnology.”
Our Food and Drug Administration is supposed to be a neutral ground for settling factual issues like these. Unfortunately, the FDA has lost the public trust through its propensity to put itself in industry’s pocket. The General Accounting Office is presently investigating the FDA’s performance in licensing BGH, amid rumors that research on the hormone’s safety has been inadequate and even falsified.
2. BGH could be harmful to cows. No machine or living creature can run long in constant overdrive. Opponents say that cows revved up on BGH have enlarged hearts, livers, ovaries, and thyroids, and that they have reproductive problems and recurrent mastitis. The energy and nutrients that go into 20 percent more milk have to come from some other function of the cow. BGH-treated cows probably live shorter lives. Their carcasses are unacceptable to the meat industry, because the injections damage muscle tissue. Industry says that BGH-treated cows are perfectly healthy.
3. This nation of chronic agricultural surplus does not need 20 percent more milk. If that milk is produced, either government will have to buy and dispose of it at taxpayer expense, or those farmers who adopt BGH first will flood the market and force other farmers out of business. Farmers understand this dynamic well. It’s no wonder that polls in various states show 75-85 percent of dairy farmers opposed to BGH. The whole business looks to them like a scheme to transfer money to chemical companies either from taxpayers or from farmers, and it’s likely, given the political realities, that the choice will be farmers.
A neutral observer of the BGH controversy — if there is one — would call it a sleazy fight, based on rumor, innuendo, and above all ignorance. In the bodies of cows and humans hormones play complicated roles that no one fully understands. There has been no unbiased study of the effect of this technology on the cow, the milk, or the milk’s consumers. There has been no sober analysis of who would benefit economically and who would lose. No one has made an ethical argument for treating a cow like a machine that can be run on fast-forward until she burns out.
Dairy farmers and dairy states are not “food-terrorists” if they call for moratoria and for studies done by someone who does not stand to profit from the results. They are simply asking for time to stop and think and learn. That’s a reasonable request. The nation is not low on milk. No one is in any all-fired hurry for this new technology, except the companies who own it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990