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Performance Enhancers on the Farm

Dairy farmers across America are confronted every day with the need to make performance on the farm as efficient as possible.  Farmers are always seeking ways to increase crop yields, or, on dairies, to increase milk production.  Changes in diet, grazing or exercise can affect a cow’s ability to produce milk.  Technology on the farm has played an important role in increasing overall production—the tractor, the hay baler, the milking systems, have increased cost efficiencies for a better milk yield.

Recently, biotechnology has played a role in increasing farm production yield.  But as with performance enhancers in sports, these new technologies are not without their fair share of controversy.  One of the central controversies surrounds the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), and, like baseball, there are those who believe dairy farms should be “clean,” and free of synthetic growth hormones, while others believe synthetically enhanced performance is part of the game.  Organic production standards have never allowed the use of rBGH.  

Scientists have known for many years that cows injected with natural bovine growth hormone give more milk, however they could not do anything commercially viable with that knowledge because there was no  way to effectively source naturally occurring bovine growth hormone.  In order to effectively treat one cow, scientists needed to harvest bovine growth hormone from 25 or more cow cadavers. However, with the development of synthetic hormones, commercial application on a larger scale was now possible.

Monsanto Corporation developed and patented a synthetic bovine growth hormone in the early 1980s, and began the process of taking that hormone to the commercial dairy market.  Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) first needed the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being commercially sold as an animal drug.  Monsanto was required to demonstrate that rBGH was effective for its proposed use (increasing milk production) and created no safety concerns for animal or human health. 

The FDA approved rBGH for commercial use in 1993, basing its reasoning on the concept that rBGH is broken down into inactive fragments during digestion, and would not enter a person’s bloodstream.  Monsanto provided evidence of several studies on rats to demonstrate both animal and human safety.  After approval, Monsanto began selling rBGH  (Posilac®)to dairy farmers around the country.  

Today, Monsanto reports that over 8000 dairy producers, representing 30% of the dairy herd in the United States, are using Posilac®.  The synthetic hormone is injected every fourteen days, increasing the annual production of a dairy cow by more than 10%.  Posilac’s annual sales are estimated to be over $270 million.

But, as with Major League Baseball, the use of Posilac® to enhance a cow’s production is not without controversy.  Many argue that an animal’s health and well-being is severely hampered. Animal welfare advocates point out that cows treated with rBGH suffer increased udder infections, foot problems, reproductive problems and reactions at the injection site.  
In fact, the Posilac® packaging itself lists 16 different potential harmful  bovine health side effects including reduced pregnancy rates, visibly abnormal milk, hoof disorders and a need for other antibiotic drug treatments for health problems.

While the evidence is strong that treated cows simply burn out faster than non-treated cows, because of the increased demands on their systems, Monsanto counters that FDA approval demonstrates the drug’s safety, and that numerous follow-up, post-approval studies have demonstrated no difference between the health of treated and non-treated animals.

However, rBGH has not been approved for use in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, based on continuing safety concerns.

Many anti-rBGH groups also argue strongly that the human health is at great risk from consuming products from animals treated with rBGH.  According to the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), milk from treated cows has increased levels of insulin growth factor (IGF-1).  All milk contains IGF-1, but there are concerns that the additional levels of IGF-1 can survive digestion and enter the bloodstream.  Because there are studies demonstrating that IGF-1 is a factor in the growth of breast, prostate and colon cancer, PSR believes that the FDA’s approval of bovine growth hormone should be reversed.  Other groups have challenged the FDA’s approval of rBGH. Most prominently, a petition by the Center for Food Safety has asked that the FDA review its approval and reverse it, based on new information regarding the product’s safety.  This petition has been denied, and approval of rBGH remains in place.

Another controversy surrounding rBGH involves the entire dairy industry—pitting those who have chosen to use rBGH against those who have not.  Farmers who use rBGH defend their right to use approved substances to enhance their on-farm production.  In an industry where farmers have little control over the price they receive for their milk, every dollar helps.  The added ten percent production may mean the difference between staying on the farm or not.  However, other farmers argue that the use of rBGH continues to feed a glut of milk, so much that oversupply is creating volatility in the marketplace for farmers.  

As the awareness of the rBGH controversy has grown, more and more farmers and dairy processors have responded to consumers’ concerns that their milk not be treated with the synthetic hormone.  These farmers and processors are turning away from the technology, and in return for doing so, are hoping to receive a small premium.  This has led to the labeling wars at the shelf.  Is the milk that is labeled “rBGH-free” different? FDA guidance suggests that milk cartons carrying a no-rBGH label should also say there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated, and milk from cows not treated. 

While these battles play out in the state governments, consumers are voting with their dollars.  More and more, consumers are purchasing no-rBGH milk.  So much that major retailers, like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Kroger and Safeway have all declared that their milk will be sourced from animals not treated with rBGH. Many processors are now refusing to pick up milk from farms using rBGH, or are charging the farmers a penalty.

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