I wanted to help my students reexamine the images of purity and health that milk evoked by presenting them with some unsettling information about the Monsanto corporation's artificial growth hormone, rBGH. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH — also known as Bovine Somatrotropin, bST, or rBST) is a genetically engineered version of the growth hormone naturally produced by cows, and was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administra-tion (FDA) in 1993 for the purpose of increasing a cow's milk production by an estimated 5 to 15 percent. Monsanto markets rBGH, under the trade name Posilac, as a way "for dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows, thereby providing dairy farmers with additional economic security" (see www.monsantodairy.com). But with an increased risk of health problems for cows stressed from producing milk at unnaturally enhanced levels — including more udder infections and reproductive problems — critics argue that the only true economic security resulting from the sale of Posilac (rBGH) is the $300-500 million a year that Monsanto makes from the product.
The human health risks posed by rBGH-treated milk have been an issue of intense controversy since rBGH was introduced more than a decade ago. Monsanto and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that milk and meat from cows supplemented with bST are safe. On the other hand, a number of peer-reviewed studies, most notably those of University of Illinois School of Public Health Professor Samuel Epstein, MD, have shown that rBGH-treated milk contains higher than normal levels of Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Although IGF-1 is a naturally occurring hormone-protein in cows and humans, when increased above normal levels it has been linked to an increased risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Monsanto itself, in 1993, admitted that rBGH milk often contains higher levels of IGF-1. The uncertainty surrounding these health risks has led citizens and governments in Canada, all 25 countries of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to ban rBGH.
The continued use of rBGH in the United States points to the political influence of large corporations on the FDA's regulatory process. When, in 1994, concerned dairy retailers responded to the introduction of rBGH with labels indicating untreated milk as "rBGH free," the FDA argued that there was no "significant" difference between rBGH-treated milk and ordinary milk and warned retailers that such labels were illegal. The FDA has since changed its position and now allows producers to label rBGH-free milk. Paul Kingsnorth, writing in The Ecologist magazine, offers one explanation for the FDA's protection of rBGH: "The FDA official responsible for developing this labeling 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 since moved back to work for Monsanto." Not an isolated incident, this example illustrates what critics often refer to as the "revolving door" between U.S. biotechnology corporations and the government agencies responsible for regulating biotech products and the safety of the nation's food.
The story of rBGH in the United States encapsulates many of the worst elements of today's corporate-controlled, industrial food system. Despite the illusion of choice created by the thousands of items available at the supermarket, consumers have little knowledge about where food comes from and how it is produced. By uncovering the story behind rBGH, I hoped students would begin asking questions about the ways corporate consolidation and control of the world's food supply has drastically limited the real choices and knowledge we have as food consumers.
To familiarize ourselves with Mon-santo's point of view, we spent a day in the computer lab exploring the corporation's website (www.monsanto.com). I asked students to look for arguments made in favor of biotechnology and genetically modified foods: Why does Monsanto argue that these technologies are important? What benefits do they offer to humans and the environment? Some students were impressed with