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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bovine Growth Hormone: To Use or Not to Use, That is the Question

Air Date: Week of

Banned in Europe and Canada, Bovine Growth Hormone (or BGH) can increase dairy cow milk production by 20%. Eric Westervelt of member station WEVO in Concord, New Hampshire reports on the opposing viewpoints on the BGH controversy. Some farmers feel the hormone helps with cost effectiveness; others feel it will cause a glut in production that will put family farmers out of business.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A year after it first came onto the market, a fierce debate continues over the use of the synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone to stimulate the production of milk. Injections of BGH can boost a cow's output by as much as 20%. And some say it cuts costs while feeding more people. But others say it's not good for cows or family farmers. And while the US Government says BGH is safe, the Canadians and the European Community have blocked its use, and the issue seems far from settled. From member station WEVO in Concord, New Hampshire, Eric Westervelt has our story.

(Cows mooing amidst birdsong)

WESTERVELT: Forty-four-year-old dairy farmer Paul Knox shows off a new addition to his herd on his 300-acre farm in central New Hampshire.

KNOX: Come on, little calf. You can tell she's " she's probably going to be normal and healthy, because they should always be hungry. She'd suck on your finger in a minute.

WESTERVELT: With another farm in Vermont, 1,300 cows and 20 workers, Knox's family-owned operations are large by New England standards. Knox started using Bovine Sematotropin, commonly known as Bovine Growth Hormone or BGH, one year ago. He couldn't be happier. As promised, it has increased his cow's milk output by nearly 10% while lowering his overall cost for both labor and feed.

KNOX: We think it has been very cost-effective, simply because it has increased our milk output substantially. We're in a position here where we can't add cows very well, and so the only thing we can do to increase cash flow is to make more milk. So the only thing we could do, that I could think of, was to use BGH.

(A motor revs up.)

WESTERVELT: Knox is skeptical of BGH critics who say the synthetic hormone may harm cows, people, or the farm-based economy. Nay-sayers, he says, made similar warnings about other technological advances such as milking machines and artificial insemination.

KNOX: It's another technology that I think will allow us to do more with less. I personally have absolutely not one shred of doubt about the safety to consumers of milk, and I have no doubt about the safety to the cow when it's used by good managers.

WESTERVELT: The giant chemical company Monsanto spent more than $300 million developing BGH, which is sold commercial as Posilac. And the comp any is spending thousands more promoting it.

(Commercial voice-over: "...kit you've received. Remember: every eligible cow not treated with Posilac is a lost income opportunity. We're here to help you increase the profit potential of your dairy management program. And with Posilac, that can happen much sooner than you think." Background music swells and fades.)

BARTON: The sales have really been encouraging over the course of the first year. Over 14-and-a-half million doses of the product were sold to farmers throughout the United States.

WESTERVELT: Monsanto spokesman Gary Barton says after more than a year of use, farmers like Knox around the country are reporting positive results. Although there is already an overabundance of fluid milk in America, Barton believes that with BGH, Monsanto is helping to feed a fast-growing world population, and so is helping the environment.

BARTON: If we're to avoid plowing up the rainforests and planting crops in wetlands, what we're going to have to do is make every acre of land on this planet more productive.

WESTERVELT: And every cow. Barton says more than 13,000 dairy producers in the US are using BGH. That's more than 11% of milk producers nationwide. But certainly, not all farmers are getting on the BGH bandwagon.

JUDD: Why risk it? And why risk alienating a major segment of the consumers, all for what? So that, you know, we can make Monsanto rich? I just don't think it's worth it. We can, and we're fine without it.

WESTERVELT: Inside his automated milk house on his small dairy farm in the sloping hills of western Vermont, Steve Judd says he'll never touch BGH, which he calls inappropriate.

JUDD: You know, if I owned a factory I wouldn't require the workers at the factory to take amphetamines so that they can work faster, and I'm not going to require my cows to take hormones so that they can make more milk. I, you know, that's a management issue for me. I can, if I manage my cows properly they make a lot of milk.

WESTERVELT: Judd has organized a group of 25 Vermont dairy farmers who've pledged never to use hormones to boost milk production: a pledge they're trying to market in the Northeast through a premium line of hormone-free milk. Judd points out that some farmers using BGH have reported increases in mastitis, a painful inflammation of the cow's udder that turns milk sour and unusable. It's a concern shared by others in the US and abroad.

BRUNNER: If the American public believes BST to be safe, then perhaps they need to look at the decisions that have been taken in Canada and Europe.

WESTERVELT: British epidemiologist Eric Brunner of University College of London co-authored a controversial BGH study, printed in the British science journal Nature. Using Monsanto's own data, Dr. Brunner showed that BGH significantly increased the risk of mastitis infections. The work helped convince the European Union to bar BGH for 5 years. Canada also has banned the commercial use of BGH. Brunner says the fact that he got vastly different results from the same Monsanto data raises troubling questions about the drug approval process in the US.

BRUNNER: When a company conducts its own safety trials, because of the amounts of money involved, there may be a very understandable temptation to, shall we say, be economical to the truth.

WESTERVELT: To cure mastitis, farmers must use antibiotics that can then enter the food chain. Some consumer groups warn that this potential increase of chemicals in milk could damage humans' ability to combat disease. The label on Monsanto's drug warns of more than 20 potential side effects, including mastitis. Some dairy farmers in Texas and Wisconsin have stopped using the drug, citing high mastitis rates among their herds. And some consumer groups are pushing for further research into the human health effects of BGH. But Cornell University animal science professor Dale Baumett, who pioneered the development of the hormone for Monsanto and other drug companies, says fear of BGH is alarmist. BGH mimics natural hormones, he says, so milk treated with the drug is the same wholesome drink it's always been. Groups opposed to it, he says, are using strong emotion, not sound science.

BAUMETT: What I hear from farmers is this stuff is amazing. It's been looked at by not only FDA but the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Dietetic Association, National Institute of Health. All the scientific groups. And there are areas where there is controversy in science, but the safety of the milk from BST is not one of those areas.

WESTERVELT: The US Food and Drug Administration agrees that the hormone is safe, and the FDA ruled that in its 12 months on the market, Posilac's mastitis damage to cows is a quote, "manageable risk." While consumer groups warn about health risks, some New England dairy processors are caught in the middle. Gary Hirschberg is President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, a New Hampshire-based yogurt company.

HIRSCHBERG: Consumers are definitely confused and with good reason. The amount of propaganda around this issue on both sides has really been obscene. Many of the folks on my side of the issue have really been irresponsible in throwing around charges that this will result in health impacts which are, frankly, not known yet at this time.

WESTERVELT: Hirschberg says his company's opposition to BGH is based on his belief that the family farm is vital to preserving a diverse food supply, and that more milk will simply lower prices, driving family farms out of business. Stonyfield was the first dairy producer in the country to pay its suppliers not to use the synthetic hormone.

HIRSCHBERG: Stonyfield's opposition is based on the fact that it's basically just fundamentally stupid economics. The last thing we need in this country is surplus milk at this point, and we and the other 140 to 150 other processors around the country are generally in agreement that we're basically killing our suppliers. And if we get rid of family farms, forget the sort of aesthetic and environmental impact that that will probably result in. The bottom line is that would also be bad business for us, because we're going to wind up buying all of our milk from Kraft and General Mills and huge processors who will control the milk supply out there.

WESTERVELT: The conflict over BGH has moved from the nation's farms and research centers to state legislatures across the country. There, consumer groups, Monsanto and dairy lobbyists are engaged in fierce political battles over labeling of products made with BGH. Currently, 3 states allow some kind of voluntary labeling of products made with the drug. Vermont has the nation's only mandatory labeling law. But under Federal rules, the same products have to add a disclaimer saying milk with BGH is just as good as milk without it. Currently, several labeling bills are before Congress. For Living on Earth, this is Eric Westervelt reporting.



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