What is Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
‘Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone’ (rBGH) is one of the promising products of biotechnology that help increase the production of milk by cows and is a boon for large-scale dairy operators. The sale of milk produced from cows treated with rBGH is permissible in the U.S., and according to Monsanto, the rBGH producer, “the drug is injected into about 30 percent of US dairy cows”. (Green Legislative Memos on Genetic Engineering). Though controversy abounds regarding the safety of rBGH in cows and humans, the production of milk using artificial growth hormone still thrives in the United States. Although the population escalation requires more innovations in agricultural productivity to meet the increasing needs of safe and nutritious food for humans, many feel that it should not be at the cost of sacrificing environmental balance and the health of people and animals involved.
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Pituitary gland of animals naturally produces somatotropin, and bovine somatotropin (bST) is found to activate nutrients to “increase growth in young cattle and milk production in dairy cows” ( Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST).
The U.S scenario
The seminal work by two Russian scientists (Azimove and Krouze, 1937 cited by Collier, 2000) postulates “that an active principle extracted from the pituitary glands of cows increased milk production,” This paper was published in the American Journal of Dairy Science, and it had triggered the experimentation for the development of artificial bovine growth hormone. This ‘active principle extract from the pituitary gland of cows,’ later identified as bovine somatotropin (bST), initiated a more scientific inquiry and the development of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), produced by Monsanto. The artificial recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) produced with the help of biotechnology is more popularly known as ‘recombinant bovine growth hormone’ (rBGH).
The brand name of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) produced by Monsanto is ‘Posilac®’. It has the largest acceptance and sales in the U.S dairy industry; because rBGH has the potency to artificially stimulate cows to produce more milk than normal. Studies showed that two-week administration of ‘Posilac’ by subcutaneous injection in lactating dairy cows produced an average 15% increase in milk yield, without affecting the health of the cattle.
Discovery and development of BGH
The Russian scientists had concluded that artificial boosting of milk production does not affect the health of cows adversely, and that ”milk yield returned to previous levels after completion of treatment,” which still holds true today (Collier, 156-163). These scientists were incapable to supply enough somatotropin, and subsequent research at Monsanto found it impractical to chemically synthesize bST molecules at that time. However, increased interest in biotechnology during the 1970s prompted Monsanto to tie up with Geotech, a startup biotechnology company, and production of bovine somatotropin. This venture helped Monsanto to produce the first cloned animal molecule leading to creating history as well as controversy in the dairy industry. Though by 1983 Monsanto was keener to get approval for worldwide use of rBGH, the effort encountered many setbacks between 1985-1986 from consumer advocates and biotechnology critics, particularly from Europe. “Studies found that rBGH increases the fat content and decreases the protein content of milk during the early stages of its use” (Green Legislative Memo). However, Monsanto succeeded in getting technical approval of rbST, both in the European Union and the US, in 1993. But protest in the European Union (EU) was strongest and sales and research on rbST have been banned indefinitely, even though “products from cows injected with rbST in the US are not prevented from entering the European Union.” (Collier, 2).
The use of the artificial hormone that helps yield more milk from cows, commonly known as Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), was legally approved by the veterinary medicine branch of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993. It was criticized that “FDA relied solely on one study administered by Monsanto,” for approval by FDA, which was never published, whereas the FDA stated “the results showed no significant problem” (Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST). Many scientists point out that the consumption of milk from cows injected with BGH has a potential risk of causing cancer. Monsanto, its producer and seller, insists that “use of the hormone poses no human health risk of any kind.” (Florida Milk Supply Riddled with Artificial Hormone Linked to Cancer).
Response from the U.S and the European Union (EU)
Adverse effects on humans
The critics of BGH argue that the drug that boosts metabolism can lead to changes in milk structure, and promote infection in the cows that can be fatal, and “human consumption of milk from (BGH ) treated cows poses an unnecessary risk of breast and colon cancer.” (Florida Milk Supply Riddled with Artificial Hormone Linked to Cancer). It is pointed out that such possibilities have never been thoroughly investigated, and the increased use of antibiotic drugs to fight infections and side effects inherent in cows injected with BGH can have a higher presence of antibiotics in milk.
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How BGH affects cows?
Serious health problems have been reported by Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, in cows injected with rBGH, such as “rise in the number of deformed calves, a painful bacterial infection of the udder, and pus and blood secretions into milk” (Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST). Reports also indicate that forced secretion of larger volumes of milk can make the cows malnourished and greater stress on metabolism will adversely affect their health leading to a shorter lifespan. An assessment of Monsanto’s research by Health Canada in 1998 had shown “concern and reasons for review before approval of rBGH.” (Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST). In the milk secreted by cows injected with rBGH, “insulin growth factor-1(IGF-1)” level was found to be higher, and some scientists opine that the increased level of IGH-1 can be carcinogenic (Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST). Reports indicate that European Union (EU), Japan, Australia, and Canada have all banned use of rBGH due to “animal and human health concerns” (Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST).
Manipulations and pressure tactics by Monsanto
Pressure tactics to prevent media from exposing negative effects of BGH
A brief review of literature on bovine growth hormone reveals that the monopoly of Monsanto is maintained through pressure tactics. The dumping of television reports by Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, award-winning husband-and-wife investigative reporters who were working for Fox-TV’s television station in Tampa, is an example of protecting Monsanto from negative propaganda by media bosses. Subsequent dismissal of the team from Fox-TV, and their legal battle, are historic milestones in the fight against GBH in the U.S. Sustainable table, a not for profit organization thriving to improve people’s health reports that the investigative report by Akre scheduled to air in four parts beginning February 24, 1997 was abruptly withdrawn virtually on the eve of the broadcast due to pressure tactics from Monsanto. The blockade of effort by Akre and Wilson to tell Florida consumers the truth about the adverse effect of consuming milk from hormone-injected cows was a violation of journalistic ethics and encroachment on right to information of the public.
Unhealthy relationship between FDA and Monsanto
Another point of criticism is that there was an unhealthy relationship between Monsanto and the FDA in promoting rBGH as the FDA commissioner who wrote the labeling guidelines and the deputy director associated with the new animal drug office of FDA were former employees of Monsanto. Though the General Accounting Office in 1994 had ruled out any conflict of interest from the association of officials with Monsanto it is argued that there are unethical partnerships between Monsanto and the U.S. government agencies still today in promoting rBGH. In addition, some non-profit organizations, such as American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), under the patronage of Monsanto are also trying to obliterate growing consumer concern of the hazards of biotechnologically manipulated milk production and labeling practice. Even though labeling controversies are abounding in many states, “Monsanto continues to push the FDA to restrict the use of rBGH-free labeling.” (Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST. 2008). By looking at few published articles related to bovine growth hormones it may be concluded that more scientific investigations are required to establish its adverse effect on humans. Although scientific inventions and biotechnological innovations are aimed to increase the production of safe and nutritious food for humans it should be our earnest endeavor to protect the environment and safeguard the health of the people, rather than promoting commercial interests.
- Collier, Robert. Regulations of rbST in the US. AgBioForum. 3.2&3. 2000.
- Florida Milk Supply Riddled with Artificial Hormone Linked to Cancer. Fox 13: Tampa Bay.
- Green Legislative Memos on Genetic Engineering. NYS Greens Campaign on Genetic Engineering. 2009.
- Sustainable table: What is rBGH & rbST. Sustainable Table. 2009.