Bovine Growth Hormone Essay

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Bovine growth hormone (also referred to as recombinant bovine growth hormone, rbGH, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, rbST) is a genetically engineered version of a hormone that occurs naturally in cows. When injected into cows, it can increase milk production by between 15 and 25 percent. Consumer organizations, animal welfare groups, environmental groups, and small farmers’ organizations have opposed the use of bovine growth hormone due to its potential threats to food safety, cow health, and the economic viability of small farms.

The Monsanto corporation began experimenting with rbGH in the 1980s. Their rbGH product, Prosilac, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for commercial sale and use on November 5, 1993. But the approval process and subsequent use of rbGH have been surrounded by controversy. Studies have shown that the use of rbGH can cause a number of health problems in cows including lameness, diminished fertility, and an increased risk of mastitis (udder inflammation). Mastitis is usually treated with antibiotics, which can make their way into dairy products, thus increasing health risks for consumers. Concerns have also been raised about the relationship between rbGH use and increases in another hormone found in cows, insulin growth factor or IGF-1, which, while naturally found in milk and beneficial to human health, has also been linked to certain forms of cancer. Scientific reports have yielded conflicting conclusions about the broader health impacts of rbGH use.

Consumer organizations such as the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association have charged that there was inadequate testing of the drug prior to its approval and that health consequences, including cancer risks, have been underestimated. Some charge that Monsanto used political influence to usher through the approval of the growth hormone in the United States, and that the corporation covered up evidence of its dangers. A major controversy erupted, and a series of lawsuits were filed over a Fox News report on bovine growth hormone (BGH) that Monsanto sought to suppress.

Political conflicts have also erupted over the labeling of products made from cows treated with BGH. In an industry victory in 1997, a federal court struck down a Vermont law that required labeling for dairy products made with milk from BGH-treated cows. Voluntary labeling is still allowed in most states, and some dairy producers indicate on labels that their products were produced from cows that have not been treated with the hormone.

Resistance to BGH and genetic engineering in general has been even stronger in Europe and Canada than in the United States. The European Union placed a moratorium on the use and marketing of rbST in 1990, and in 1999 imposed a permanent ban. Health agencies in Europe and Canada place more weight on the evidence suggesting human health risks of the growth hormone. Public opinion in Europe is also strongly against genetically modified products. The United States sought to overturn the European ban for the purposes of marketing U.S. goods. However, when Codex, an international organization that sets food standards, failed to reach consensus on the safety of BST in 1999, the United States backed off on its efforts to force these goods onto the European market.

Concern about the implications of the use of growth hormones for small farms is also significant in Europe and America. There is no shortage of milk, thus increased production resulting from the use of synthetic hormones threatens to lower milk prices and harm small producers. Resistance to rBGH has been particularly strong in dairy farm states such as Wisconsin and Vermont.


  1. Andy Coghlan, “Milk Hormone Faces Growing Opposition,” New Scientist (January 23, 1999);
  2. Diane Gershon, “Prospects for Growth Hormone Turn Sour,” Nature (v.364/6438, 1993);
  3. Deana Grobe and Robin Douthitt, “Consumer Risk Perception Profiles Regarding Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rbGH),” Journal of Consumer Affairs (v.33/2, 1999);
  4. Kevin Edson Jones, “Constructing rBST in Canada: Biotechnology, Instability and the Management of Nature,” Canadian Journal of Sociology (v25/3, 2000).

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