The Bull About Bovine Growth Hormone

Many years ago I used to visit my cousins on their dairy farm in upstate New York. A foggy, sprawling area of marsh and farmland, the moors are kind of creepy. But they had what was considered to be a medium scale farm in those days, with a few lines of cows and a few milking machines. The cows were treated pretty well, milked when they could be milked and allowed to feed their calves after birth. The calves were sold off at auction later on, when they were ready. This was their operation, small, clean and profitable.

But times have changed. The need for milk production has exploded beyond the capacity of family dairy farms and the constant demand has fueled enormous operations that must produce 24/7 365. And, as with all other big business applications, money is the bottom line for the milk industry. The major contributor to these factory scale dairy operations and their profitability is recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, also referred to as rBGH or rBST. This is an artificial growth hormone developed by Monsanto to increase dairy cows’ milk output. Industrial agriculture proponents proclaim that farming on a large scale, and using technology such as rBGH, is better for the environment. But is it really?

Large scale, industrialized agribusiness makes the claim that farming on a larger scale, using technology, brings many benefits to the farmers. They believe that this sort of farming is healthier in general, being better for the environment than the older methods, because dairy cows injected with the new growth hormones “eat less feed per gallon milk they produce”. This translates into less land that is used for cows that are given these artificial hormones. “Less land plowed, less fertilizer, less of all of the inputs that go into producing the dairy products consumers enjoy.” Going even further, it has been claimed that those cows on rBGH help cut down on greenhouse gases. But is any of this true? Is their advertising campaign, in fact, being honest?

According to the FDA, the answer is no. Now, I don’t know how much faith you have in the FDA these days, but an answer like this would be unexpected, considering the FDA’s history of closeness with big business at the expense of consumers. So this answer deserves some consideration. Looking back, years ago, when rBGH was first being approved for use on cows, Monsanto had wanted to put a claim on their label and packaging that this hormone increased both feed efficiency and milk production. And this is just what the hormone supporters are still saying today. But when the agency finally approved the use of the hormone in 1993, the label claim for increased feed efficiency was not allowed because Monsanto did not have enough data to convince the FDA of their claims.

Now, imagine this. An act which shows the FDA doing something good in our behalf. Does this sound like the same agency? However, it might behoove us to note that this was 1993 and the Bush Administration hadn’t taken the train off into the ditch yet. So although the FDA approved the use of rBGH for increasing the amount of milk per cow it did not buy the claim that those cows eat less feed. And so the argument continues to this day, the proponents of the bovine growth hormone claiming that it saves money and space and produces tons of milk while the FDA demands proof. But is this really the only argument that matters, after all?

Is the amount of milk per cow all that matters? What about other factors, such as the health of the cows, the effect the hormones have on the milk, what dangers it might pose to humans, what the long term effect is on all of us… etc.. etc.. These are valid questions and it always bothers me that people in positions of power never ask these kinds of questions. The questions do not only focus on money and profit potential, not when the price is the health of human beings and the planet they live on.

In fact, rBGH is used in only about 17% of all U.S. dairy cows, including small farms, which rarely use it, while large scale factory farm operators inject it into 42 % of the largest herds (500 animals or more). This outlines that big dairy farms are the primary users of the artificial hormone. The numbers break down to show that fewer than 10% of small dairy farms (those with fewer than 100 cows) use the same hormones. This is according to data current as of 2007.

In order to understand what the differences are in today’s dairy culture, you should take a long look at modern dairy production. Instead of wandering around freely eating grass in large pastures, cows are kept in factory farms where they eat grain. This grain takes lots of land and energy to grow, pack and transport. As well, it is this grain that has been infected worldwide with animal renderings, causing the outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s. Cows are not built to eat grains, by the way. Grass is what they should be eating, that is why they have that crazy stomach they all have. Sickness is bound to be the result of forcing them to eat grains. Sort of like making people eat raw chicken.

Consider also the process of planting and harvesting and transporting all that corn! This pollutes our soil and water with agro-chemical waste to the tune of about 10 billion pounds a year. To note, nitrogen fertilizer alone is dumped onto large fields and, left there, it releases carbon dioxide emissions into our atmosphere, where it assists with climate change. Whew. I know that’s a mouthful, but that’s the conundrum of this crazy agribusiness that human beings have developed. All so we can truck big loads of cream cheese to super stores all over the map.

So is what they say true? Does this all reduce environmental impact overall, because, as they claim, these cows eat less feed? Feed that, in fact, they aren’t really supposed to eat to begin with? Grains that have to be grown for the cows’ consumption, packaged and shipped to some big factory farm, where the cows are crammed in back to back?

And consider what all this large scale farming does to our financial situation, as well as our food safety. Without the intervention of human beings along these mechanical production lines, who knows what goes into each can, box or bottle? There have been many rumors that high level production in dairy cows causes infected udders which, in turn, puts a lot of pus into the milk supply. Just the thought of this makes me sick. And, financially, the big businesses that have taken over everything have also driven out the smaller, more sustainable farms, putting people out of work all over the map. As an example about the change in size among the dairy industry, numbers show that between 1987 and 2002, the average size dairy herd more than tripled, going from 80 to 275 cows. Now, that’s going BIG.

Here are some more numbers I picked up, as boring as they may seem. They will show you the impact that large scale dairy farming has on the environment. For instance, in California from 1997 to 2007, the number of dairy cows increased by 30%, from 1.39 million to 1.81 million. Those 422,000 additional cows consumed 44 million more bushels of corn in 2007 than the state’s dairy herd ate a decade earlier. An additional 293,000 acres of corn were required to feed those new dairy cows in 2007. And in Idaho, which is considered new to the production of milk on a large scale, the number of dairy cows in the state skyrocketed from 272,000 in 1997 to 513,000 in 2007, an increase of 88.6 percent. Those 241,000 additional cows ate about 25 million more bushels of corn. Growing that corn required 167,000 acres of land.

Consider also that in states where there is no grain or corn being grown, like California or Idaho, the corn or grain has to be grown elsewhere, crowding out other crops, harvested, packaged and shipped to these states in order to feed these cows. Cows that should be eating GRASS. This does not read out as good for the environment to me. Neither does it seem efficient or even financially sensible. It actually sounds crazy. But this is just the feed alone. I haven’t even discussed the effects of hormones on the cows, on humans, on the milk. Neither have I gotten to the manure. The TONS of manure all these crammed in, overfed, hormone pumped up cows are pooping.

These factory farms have no use for the manure so they have to store it. Now, I have a cat box or two in my apartment and this alone tells me something about keeping manure anywhere for long. Millions of gallons of manure like this is incredible to me. It emits dust particles and hundreds of different volatile gases, including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane. In fact, 2500 dairy cows create as much waste as a city with 400,000 residents! And this effect on air quality is easily guessed. In 2005, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution District announced that the 2 million diary cows in their region created more air emissions of volatile organic compounds than cars, trucks or even pesticides!

But I must go beyond the initial question of whether these hormones are good for the planet or not, and move onto how they affect our financial situation and our health. Regardless of the claims of big agra, the effect it has had on the farming business is variable. Some farmers have made money using the hormones, others have not. The price of feed goes up when the cost of milk goes down and the farmer is back in a bad squeeze. While farmers who put their cows on rBGH may see a 10% increase in milk production, they also have increased expenses, not only including the feed but the $6.50 per injection cost of the hormone (not including the labor charge to administer it) and the possibility of more bills from the veterinarian to deal with bovine health ills stemming from rBGH. I have already mentioned infected udders from constant milking but the list is long and scary. For instance, these increased bacterial udder infections in cows creates a need for antibiotics to treat the infections. The overuse of antibiotics in dairy cows has led to a general fear of antibiotic resistance, which has been raised recently among both humans and cows by 25%. Don’t we already have enough antibiotic resistant strains around now? I mean MRSA and Flesh Eating Disease? What is this, a horror movie or life? In addition to all these horrors, some dairy farmers report that cows treated with rBGH burn out faster and have to be sent to slaughter and replaced. So, here, again, MORE expense and less profit.

And speaking of less profit, here’s another financial reality to consider. That increasing the supply of milk reduces the price that dairy farmers receive for it. Just like the demand for oil raises and lowers the price of gas. That financial reality drives many small farmers out of business and forces the remaining producers to join the factory farms. So just how good is it for our economy again? Hmm.

And all of this is said without even getting to the big question for me. How does it affect our health and well being? Although the FDA approved rBGH in 1993, based solely on an unpublished study submitted by Monsanto, the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union have never allowed it to be used. Now, I know that Americans are independent and radical in their thinking and do not care what “fancy Europeans” do.. but if people are afraid of something it’s not because they have tin hats on their heads. Sometimes they have information that we are denied or are ignoring.

The possible health implications of rBGH for humans and cows are significant. The milk from cows injected with rBGH has higher levels of another hormone called insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Elevated levels of IGF-1 in humans have been linked to colon and breast cancer. Some researchers believe there may be an association between the increase in twin births over the past 30 years and elevated levels of IGF-1 in humans. And this is just the conventional wisdom based on conservative research. We often kid around our home, when anybody gains weight, we ask if they’ve been “drinking growth hormones again”. We laugh about it, but is it that laughable?

In fact, growth hormones in dairy cows may have increased milk production, but it has done a lot of damage in the process. Big factory farms based on hormones have driven small farmers out of business, made it harder for farmers to make a profit, has contributed to the raping of our planet with the widespread growing and transporting of feed crops and the huge production of methane pumping poop, has put people at risk for antibiotic resistance and the resultant vulnerability to infections.
Besides, how comfortable are you, drinking pus with your milk and cereal?

What can you do about this, in your life, to make it more harmony green? Well, first and foremost, if you are going to drink milk, purchase only those products that are labeled “rBGH-free,” “rBST-free,” or “organic.” The only problem with this is that some states are trying to prevent dairies from labeling their products with this information. Please write your state legislature and tell them not to accept these changes in labeling. In fact, labels should be even more informative. Don’t let the big dairy farmers make the planet and even your family sick just so they can make a buck.

Also, here are some other things you can do to help:

1. Check out Food & Water Watch for more information on how to take action to make sure consumers know how their milk was produced.

2. Tell your supermarket, favorite dairy brand, and school district that you want rBGH-free dairy products. Or thank those that already have.

3. Go to a small local farm and buy your milk there. Or shop at a local co op or farmers market and buy from smaller farms even if they aren’t in your immediate locale.

4. Buy organic.

5. Write the FDA and tell them what you’d like them to do about the control and oversight of these growth hormones. If enough people care, they will get off their butts and do something.

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1 Response so far

  1. 1

    earthmother said,

    GREAT article!

    I suspect the alarming increase in childhood obesity, little girls growing breasts and menstruating at 6-7 years of age, PCOS, and a host of other maladies are directly related to the use of rBGH. Nasty, nasty stuff.

    Another good one: Hamburgers Are the Hummers of Food

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