BGH: Why does it matter?

Bovine growth hormone (BGH; also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH, recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST) is a synthetic, genetically engineered copy of a cow’s naturally occurring growth hormone that is injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. After years of debate and controversy, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the Monsanto corporation approval to market the first BGH product under the trade name “Posilac®” in late 1993, and the drug went on sale in February, 1994.

BGH is bad for family farms. Even a small increase in milk surpluses causes a big decline in family dairy farmers’ incomes. Milk production was up sharply in states where BGH sales were highest in 1994, depressing milk prices nationally.

BGH is bad for cows. Ironically, Monsanto’s own product package insert -required by the FDA – cites 21 animal health problems for which cows are at increased risk with BGH; including increases in mastitis (udder disease), reproductive problems, use of medication to treat sick cows, digestive problems, enlarged hocks and lesions and foot problems, as well as swellings at the injection site. FDA documents show that cows injected with BGH are 79% more likely to contract mastitis. In 1991 Rural Vermont’s report on Monsanto’s BGH test herd at the University of Vermont found the same kinds of problems identified by the FDA, plus an alarming number of dead and deformed calves born to cows treated with BGH.

Consumers don’t want BGH. A 1994 Gallup poll showed consumer awareness of BGH went from 28% in 1993 to 63% since the drug entered the market in February 1994. Mona Doyle, a nationally noted food industry pollster, says that milk will lose market shares to juices and other drinks because 80% of consumers remain concerned about BGH, with 40% “very concerned.” Dairies selling BGH-free milk have reported increases in sales of up to 10-25%.

The Congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) and Consumers Union have charged that increased animal health problems translate into increased use of antibiotic drugs, including so-called “extra-label” drugs (drugs not approved for use on cows but tolerated by the FDA when prescribed by a veterinarian—stronger extra-label drugs are sometimes used when other drugs have failed). Because extra-label drugs are not monitored or tested for by the FDA, their use can be considered a serious consumer health issue.

Concerns have also been raised about IGF1 (insulin-like growth factor-1), the molecule that transmits the effects of BGH in cows. IGF1 is identical in cows and humans, and there is evidence that IGF-1 levels are increased with the use of BGH. Some scientists claim there may be a link between elevated levels of IGF-1 and the incidence of breast cancer in women and other serious health problems.

BGH as Precedent. 
BGH is the first of many biotechnology products with profound implications for the future of our farm and food system. Products nearing the market include:

  • herbicide-tolerant plants—genetically engineered seeds designed to withstand higher dosages of specific herbicides;

  • porcine somatotropin, a growth hormone for hogs—which will require rearing pigs in indoor confinement facilities—speeding growth of giant corporate farms at the expense of family-scale pork producers, and increasing the likelihood of animal health problems;

  • genetically engineered fruits and vegetables with genes from widely diverse species (including flounder genes for frost resistance), with unknown environmental effects; and

  • patented genetically engineered animals, including cows with increased BGH bred in—putting at risk centuries worth of genetic diversity.