Note: This essay was written in 2005 in the author's junior year at the University of Washington.
He was 56 years old at the time. David is now 66, a UW graduate, and still writing about and
researching environmental issues:
Slow sand water filter blog
Detailed slow sand filter study
How to harvest and filter roof water
Slow sand filter DIY
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone
As more information becomes available about Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
and its consequences, and as people engage in dialog regarding this issue; the degree of risk
perceived by consumers has been increasing, and as a result, the purveyors of agribusiness
have been forced to reexamine their marketing strategy to accommodate this shift in consumer
preference. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone has been considered a safe part of the production
of milk for human use, particularly by large corporations like Monsanto and by research
scientists (Collier), however consumers are apparently not so willing to accept this concept of
When dealing with risk, people may tend to make judgments based on emotional or fearful
perceptions; the nature of which may vary from person to person depending on personality and the
focus of their formal education ( Grobe 272). This translates into more of a qualitative
assessment rather than a rigid mathematical analysis. Irregardless of the predominantly
qualitative perceived risk, there exists a quantifiable true risk, and whatever size it may be,
it does exist. Three aspects of the risk of rBGH are the perceived risk, the actual risk, and
the idea of lack of risk, as powerfully promoted by agribusiness ad campaigns. The actual
risk of the use of rBGH, however, may not be the same as the perceived risk (Grobe 258-260).
The way people deal with risk depends on how it fits into their estimation of how much
control they have over the particular risk in question (Dupuis 291). If this risk is viewed
as part of a cultural interaction that must be, then people are more likely to become adamant
in their refusal to accept that risk. This appears to have happened with the consumption of
milk and the perception of risk, direct and indirect, from genetically altered hormones used
on cows that produce the milk.
The risk involved with genetically engineered substances was brought into the public
eye in 1989 when it was discovered that people became very ill from taking L-tryptophan,
a naturally occurring amino acid, produced in high quantity by using genetically altered
bacteria. After much investigation the company that produced the tainted supplement was not
held accountable; but the uncertainty about genetically modified organisms (gmo's) remained
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, also a genetically altered substance, has been
used to increase the production of milk in dairy cows; but has become widely perceived as
presenting unacceptably high heath risks to people. Risk perception regarding rBGH may also
be due in part to some facts about somatotropin, which is responsible for milk production
and growth in mammals including humans and cows. This hormone differs significantly between
humans and cows, and the bovine form, Bovine Somatotropin (BST), is present in the milk
produced by cows. The hormones that make up BST have been known for some time; however, to
mass produce the hormone in a cost effective way requires the use of genetic modification
(Krimsky and Wrubel 167). This adds some risk with a magnitude as yet unknown. As large
biotechnology companies started to get into the business of patenting living tissue and
genetic material, this hormone became a focus for the Monsanto company, most likely because
of the enormous market. People need to eat, and many people consider milk an undeniable part
of a healthy diet (Butler). BST is the precursor to (rBGH), the synthetic form derived from
manipulating DNA through genetic engineering.
Another aspect of the risk perception regarding rBGH is connected with the need to use
antibiotics on cows that have developed infections in their udders due to the unusually high
production of milk as a result of being pushed to produce more by rBGH. The antibiotics may
be just as harmful, and possibly more harmful than rBGH, because bacteria develop immunity
to antibiotics due to the high amount of antibiotic treatment that is necessary to keep the
cows, and milk free of disease. So the indirect risk becomes much higher when antibiotics
stop working because of overuse in cows (Epstein 1).
BST has been studied for over 50 years, but has not been used commercially until very
recently, when companies like Monsanto developed a process to manufacture it through genetic
engineering and then calling it rBGH ( Krimsky and Wrubel 167 ). In spite of the relatively
unknown consequences of use, Monsanto did everything in its power to push through the approval
of the drug by the FDA; they had a lot to gain as their total income in 1996 was $885 million
dollars largely due to their genetically engineered products ( Boyens 52).
The milk produced with the aid of rBGH has been declared the same as the milk produced
without it by the FDA ( Boyens 76 -78) even though the hormone is genetically engineered and
consequences of use are unknown ( Boyens 75). The FDA was pressured indirectly by Monsanto
through universities, the NIH, the AMA and others to get BST approved. The results of this
were not financially beneficial to many small farmers. Partly due to the pressure from
agribusiness many small family owned and operated dairies in Wisconsin were going out of
business rapidly in the early 90s. There was even a White House government sponsored study
that predicted over thirty percent of american farmers would be put out of business by the
introduction of the use of BST (Boyens 83).
As people have become aware of rBGH and its possible and documented negative effects,
including the loss of small farms, another phenomenon has appeared. Consumers have started
to buy only organic milk produced without the aid of hormones. In fact, the growth of the
popularity of organic milk has got the attention of agribusiness and they are doing all they
can to capture the market on organic milk (DuPuis 285). As is to be expected; not all milk
is completely organic and regulations in the early 90's were not standardized so there are
large corporate farms that push the limits of keeping the milk they sell honestly organic
(DuPuis 286). The use of brand names and clever marketing campaigns taking advantage of
peoples fear, uncertainty and doubt, to induce loyalty continues, as their customer base
continues to increase ( DuPuis 287).
There are socio-political implications which tend to absolve the consumer from the
responsibility of actually making an individual choice, and tend to put even highly
informed, highly educated people into the herd mentality classification when it comes to
choosing milk. The organic milk choice becomes a way to attain a feeling of being special
by choosing the same product as your enlightened friends ( DuPuis 288). People with an
agenda become involved in groups who speak out strongly in favor of organic foods, and non-rBGH
milk, and these groups tend to influence other people to join their group and its collective
attitudes (DuPuis 289). Consequently, the media picks up on this and adds to the momentum
by capturing the attention of people who feel strongly about the same issues; in this case
non-rBGH cow's milk and the risks involved with rBGH, as illustrated by Mindfully.org and
indymedia.org posting information about Tillimook's battle with Monsanto over their exclusion
of rBGH in their products as a result of overwhelming customer feedback (mindfully.org) (North).
People see milk as a requirement in their diet; a tradition so to speak, something
they must do to feel as though they are ok with the healthy diet mentality. Discovering
that there may be a health risk with something over which they see as having little choice
about, may make consumers demand organic milk free from the influence of genetically
modified hormones (DuPuis 291). As a result of all this, agribusiness has run up against
a financial brick wall created by its own greed. Their business strategy of pushing to
produce more milk using biotechnology and selling more of it to the public by using the
media and advertising to build upon the cultural value of milk as an important part of
diet has backfired. People don't want the mass produced, hormone induced risky milk of
the high tech dairy industry, they want down home farm milk, with wholesome goodness
from nature. So, the profit driven mega-corporations have changed their tune and devised
new marketing plans centered around three areas of cultural lifestyles that have emerged.
One is the home town small farm friendly neighbor genre. Another is the customer is always
right attitude; and yet another is the idea that a farming community is what we need and
more small farms are really good for our country ( DuPuis 291). These are the market
niches the agribusiness giants are after, now that organic milk is in demand, and their
marketing focuses on the consumers in these groups.
Different areas of the country require slightly different strategies, but the move
is on with corporate power pushing hard on the limits of consumer demand. There are two
large cooperatives that have formed as a result of this. One is CROPP, ( The cooperative
Regions of Organic Producer Pools). They are behind the "Organic Valley" brand (Powell).
Another is Topco, a group of about 50 different organizations; some not necessarily focusing
on organic foods. This organization is behind the "Full Circle" brand(Topco)(FullCircle).
The consumers they have targeted are highly informed and acutely aware of business practices.
If a company is cutting corners and not following strict standards, people find out quickly
(DuPuis 293). This may be due to the instant communication now possible through the use of
the internet, or actual social networks that are watching the every move of the food
industry in general, or both. This awareness crosses international borders. As of the late
1990's there was a ban on bovine growth hormone use in Europe and Canada. In fact, in Canada
over 350 organizations 100,000 people voiced their approval of continuation of the ban.
The pressure is still on, however and corporations continue to put pressure on government
officials to change the laws in favor of allowing the use of hormones ( Forsey and Lloyd ).
Ironically, a professor at the University of Illinois medical center in the U.S. ,where
the hormone use is legal and approved by the government, pointed out that evidence from the
study of breast cancer patients who consumed rBGH tainted milk, overwhelmingly demonstrates
that elements of rBGH are present in the blood of these patients at levels above normal
(Sibald 677)(Epstein). Also, prostate cancer has been associated with the rBGH agents such
as IGF-1, a chemical related to insulin growth factor ( Foresy and Lloyd). These facts have
been hotly disputed, however, by Robert J. Collier from the University of Arizona, and
Dale E. Bauman, from Cornell University (Collier 876). In spite of their eloquent scientific
argument, it should be noted that Robert Collier owns stock in the Monsanto company and
receives money from them to do research; and Dale Bauman serves as an adviser for Monsanto
( Collier errata)(Bauman 78 79). This situation casts a shadow of suspicion on their
research and their attempt at showing little risk in the use of rBGH.
The perception of risk is a complicated aspect of human behavior as illustrated by
a study regarding the perceived risk of the consumption of milk containing rBHG. The
study was a telephone survey done in the U.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The results were interpreted with the help of a computer program able to manipulate
multi-variable statistical information. This program uses an algorithm called "multinomial
logit analysis". This algorithm analyzes characteristics like choices by assigning
different numerical values to types of choices in its analysis of data ( Grobe 264). The
study found that poor people do not have much chance of choosing to avoid rBGH . Gender,
age, and personal life situations influencing overall attitude also influence the nature
of risk avoidance regarding rBGH. The study confirms what one might assume; that risk
avoidance is a very complex behavior and that the degree of awareness has a significant
effect on choice (Grobe 273). At the speed information travels, most people who take
time to read, were probably aware that this hormone was banned in some countries. This
in part could have also contributed to perception of risk, particularly to even mildly
health conscious people.
There are risks involved with the use of rBGH. These risks affect both cows and
people. There are perceived risks that often change with the social and political climate.
We can be sure that we do not know all there is to know about the long term effects of
this engineered substance; and it is certain that some people at Monsanto make lots of
money selling this product and its associated research; and they are willing to circumvent
the truth if they want to. If honesty, good health, and relatively safe food are important,
then rBGH should not be used to influence the production of milk.
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