The Monsanto corporation's genetically-engineered hormone, rBGH, seems
to be in trouble. The product is marketed to dairy farmers for
injection into their cows to boost milk production about 10%, but a
survey of farmers last summer indicated that enthusiasm for the product
remains low. And last month a new peer-reviewed medical study argued
that rBGH may promote cancer of the breast and colon in humans who
drink milk from rBGH-treated cows.
Monsanto has bet the future of the company on genetic engineering, and
rBGH is the company's first, showcase biotech product.
Monsanto has refused to release any rBGH sales figures since January,
The hormone, which Monsanto sells under the trade name Posilac, and
which is also known as BST or BGH or rBGH, has been bitterly opposed by
consumer groups on grounds that (a) its effects on humans are not
known, but may well be negative; (b) it is not good for cows; (c) it is
not needed because the U.S. already produces far more milk than it can
consume and taxpayers presently have to foot the bill for purchasing
and dumping this excess milk; and (d) there are better, non-chemical
alternatives for increasing milk production, if that is a particular
farmer's goal. (See REHW #381-384.)
Monsanto's Posilac is a genetically-engineered hormone, known as
'recombinant bovine growth hormone,' or rBGH. Monsanto some years ago
renamed it bovine somatotropin, or BST, thus avoiding use of the word
"hormone" in public discussions. With inside help from a former
Monsanto consultant who went to work for the federal government, the
U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved rBGH for sale in
November, 1993 and the product went on the market in early 1994. (See
When grocery stores began labeling certain milk as rBGH-free, as a help
to their customers who might want to avoid purchasing milk from cows
injected with the drug, Monsanto sued to prevent such labeling. Those
lawsuits were Monsanto's home-grown variant of the "banana laws" that
the food industry has been successfully promoting nationwide, to
prevent food-safety advocates from speaking out about potential dangers
of chemically-treated foods. (See REHW #481.) However Monsanto lost --
or abandoned --all the labeling lawsuits, so labeling milk as rBGH-free
is now permitted. The federal FDA, however, has refused to require
labeling of milk from rBGH-treated cows.
An important California newspaper, the FRESNO BEE, reported late last
year that farmers in California --the largest dairy state --are
treating rBGH like a dirty secret: no one wants to talk about it, and
no one wants to admit using it.
Barbara de Lollis, a BEE staff reporter, said Monsanto claims to have
sold 14.5 million injections between February, 1994 and January, 1995,
reaching almost 30% of the dairy herds in the nation. But then the
company stopped releasing sales figures. Ms. de Lollis conducted
interviews across California and reported that "an eery silence exists
in dairy circles today regarding BST [rBGH]."
"It's too controversial," said Jim Deaver, head of California State
University, Fresno's dairy unit, where they inject their herds with
rBGH. "He refused to say more," Ms. de Lollis reported.
"Some are embarrassed to talk about it," said Loren Lopes, a Turlock,
California producer who milks 300 cows without rBGH. Farmers usually
share their success or failure stories when an important new product
comes along, but not this time. "They're keeping this hidden. They
don't want people to know they're using it," Mr. Lopes told Ms. de
Mr. Lopes said he has heard of farmers who store their Posilac in an
out-of-sight cabinet or in their home. Some farmers inject their cows
themselves after the hired hands go home.
Farmers order rBGH straight from Monsanto and sometimes they have that
unmistakable blue-and-orange FedEx truck deliver rBGH to their feed
supplier instead of to their farm, so their neighbors won't know
they're using the controversial hormone, according to Mark Kastel, a
researcher with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. The Union recently
released an anecdotal report citing animal health problems tied to the
A survey published last October in DAIRY TODAY, a respected midwestern
farm journal, said 20 percent of U.S. farmers have tried rBGH. But
opposition appears to be hardening among farmers, according to the
survey firm, Rockwood Research. Among farmers who hadn't used rBGH, 87
percent said they would never use it.
Rockwood interviewed 400 farmers in 21 states during the summer of
1995. One-fifth of the farmers lived in Wisconsin, the state with the
strongest anti-rBGH sentiment.
The survey says the main reasons for avoiding rBGH are: philosophical
opposition (34 percent); fear that the drug harms cows (23 percent) and
concern that rBGH won't improve profits (17 percent).
Of farmers who have tried the drug, 40 percent have since given it up.
Of 30 farmers who used rBGH and then stopped, 16 said the drug didn't
improve profits, 10 said it caused health problems and four said rBGH
required too much time to manage, the survey showed.
The survey noted that farmers with larger herds are more willing to use
rBGH. For example, 34 percent of farmers with herds of 250 cows or more
tried rBGH, but only 11 percent with herds between 40 and 99 cows used
the milk-stimulating hormone.
Even in California, which is the original home of the large,
technologically sophisticated dairy farm, rBGH usage was down at the
end of 1995, according to two agricultural economists who track
California's dairy industry --Leslie Butler from University of
California at Davis and Vernon Crowder with Bank of America.
Ms. Butler blamed the decline on the "cost-price squeeze." Cows eat
more feed when they're on rBGH and feed prices are sky-high right now.
Mr. Crowder blamed bad weather: rBGH would add more stress to cows
already affected by heavy rains earlier in the year.
Dr. Charles Holmberg, a pathologist at the Tulare (California)
Veterinary Medicine Center, noticed another trend: Dairy farmers,
fearful of reproduction problems in cows, are using rBGH on a more
limited basis instead of on their whole herd.
Jerry Steiner, who directs Monsanto's U.S. marketing efforts for rBGH,
said the DAIRY TODAY survey didn't explore changes in the dairy
industry that Monsanto believes will improve sales or rBGH.
Monsanto's research shows that 30 percent to 40 percent of dairy
farmers plan to leave the industry within five years, Mr. Steiner said.
"A lot of older dairymen will retire," he said. "A new generation of
dairymen have different views."
Many older farmers believe their cows are more than mere milk factories
to be used up and discarded. Injecting rBGH reduces a cow's life
expectancy and increases her risk of disease. Normally for about 12
weeks after a cow calves, she produces milk at the expense of her own
tissues. She loses weight, she is infertile, and she is more
susceptible to diseases such as mastitis (inflammation of the udder).
Eventually her milk output diminishes, her food intake catches up, and
she begins to rebuild her body. By injecting rBGH, a farmer can
postpone for another 8 to 12 weeks the time when the cow begins
rebuilding her body. This means that the cow is stressed for another 8
to 12 weeks and is more susceptible to infection during that period.
This takes its toll on the animal.
Veterinarians are not supposed to sanction harmful treatment of
animals. However, U.S. veterinarians have not taken a stand against the
use of rBGH. In Germany, however, veterinarians formally oppose rBGH
because of its ill effects on treated cows. German veterinarians take
the position that use of rBGH violates their code of ethics.
Ethics is not Monsanto's primary concern. Jerry Steiner said he expects
"significant growth" in doses sold this calendar year. "Significant"
means an increase of 25 percent to 40 percent, he said.
Without providing numbers, Monsanto also said there has been "steady
growth" in the number of rBGH-treated cows and in the percentage of
cows within herds receiving the drug.
However, last October, shortly after the DAIRY TODAY survey was
released, Monsanto began offeringnew discounts to farmers to buy rBGH.
The discount of up to 10 percent rewards farmers willing to use the
drug on more of their cows, Mr. Steiner says.
The discount plan--for farmers who make a six-month commitment--was
launched in mid-October, 1995. It replaces another incentive program
that gave farmers credits on future purchases.
Announcement of the new marketing strategy coincided with the release
of the survey in DAIRY TODAY, showing that farmers' interest in rBGH is
leveling off or even declining, but Monsanto denies any connection.
Now a new medical study seems certain to diminish rBGH's prospects even
further. Proponents of rBGH acknowledge that milk from cows treated
with rBGH contains increased levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-
1), though there is disagreement about the size of the increase. IGF-1
occurs naturally in both cows and in humans, and the molecule is
identical in the two species.[5,6] Furthermore, IGF-1 is not broken
down by pasteurization. Therefore, IGF-1 ingested in milk from rBGH-
treated cows will likely be biologically active in humans. (See REHW
#454.) Dr. Samuel S. Epstein at the University of Illinois in Chicago
last month published a paper arguing that IGF-1 from rBGH-treated cows
may well promote cancer of the breast and of the colon in humans who
drink such milk. Epstein pulled no punches: "In short," he wrote, "with
the active 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 characterized and unlabeled
biotechnology product. Disturbingly, this experiment benefits only a
very small segment of the agrichemical industry while providing no
matching benefits to consumers. Even more disturbingly, it poses major
potential public health risks for the entire U.S. population," Dr.
 Barbara de Lollis, "Barbara de Lollis Column," FRESNO BEE October
22, 1995, pg. unknown.
 Samuel S. Epstein, "Unlabeled Milk from Cows Treated with
Biosynthetic Growth Hormones: A Case of Regulatory Abdication,"
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF HEALTH SERVICES Vol. 26, No. 1 (1996), pgs.
 Associated Press, "BGH Woes Alleged in Report," WISCONSIN STATE
JOURNAL [Madison, Wisconsin] October 14, 1995, pg. 8B.
 Robert Steyer, "Monsanto offers discounts to dairy farmers," ST.
LOUIS POST-DISPATCH October 22, 1995, pg. 1.
 T.B. Mepham, "Public health implications of bovine somatotrophin
[sic] use in dairying: discussion paper," JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY
OF MEDICINE Vol. 85 (December 1992), pgs. 736-739.
 Judith C. Juskevich and C. Greg Guyer, "Bovine Growth Hormone:
Human Food Safety Evaluation." SCIENCE Vol. 249 (1990), pgs. 875-884.
Descriptor terms: posilac; bgh; igf-1; food safety; milk; monsanto;