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Environmental Studies

rBGH and the mis(Use) of Science

Introduction and Theory
What is rBGH?
Actors Motivations

The Portrayal of Human Health Science

The Portrayal of Animal Health Science

Where Are Our Values?
The Future of the Debate
References & Links

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rBGH and the (mis)Use of Science

Human Health Portrayal


Monsanto does not have a strong general public advertising campaign because it does not market products for the general public. Its main clients are farmers, both small and large. As such, their ad campaign mainly focuses on selling their product to their farmers. For instance, on the internet, farmers can calculate the amount of profit they could generate if they started injecting their cows with POSILAC ( However, the little amount of information they do advertise for the general public is mainly a rebuke to charges that POSILAC is anyway dangerous to human or animal health. Their answers to questions are short and poignant and provide links to selective government and scholarly studies that support their claims.

    The choice of language Monsanto uses when describing their product appears very deliberate. When discussing bovine somatotropine, Monsanto states on their website, “bST is a naturally occurring protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of cattle and is a major regulator of milk production and growth in lactating dairy cows” (Monsanto, 2008). Historically it has been difficult to increase the levels of bST because the technology has not been sophisticated enough. However, now that we have reached that point in scientific knowledge, the use of rBST to increase bST levels is really just an adjustment in an already present hormone level in the cow, so goes the argument. Monsanto argues that there is nothing artificial about this process and commonly uses the word ‘natural’ in their explanations. This is counter to the use of the word ‘artificial’ or ‘synthetic’ by those against rBGH usage.

    The main scientific argument of Monsanto in terms of human health is that POSILAC does not alter the chemical composition of milk. They claim that numerous studies have shown that POSILAC does not lead to a difference in the micronutrients of milk including vitamins, enzyme activities and minerals (Barbano et al.,1992; Lynch et al., 1992; Van den Berg, 1989).

Therefore, Monsanto draws the conclusion that it is safe for human consumption, as the FDA has recognized.

    However, upon closer examination of their cited academic resources, one notices a couple of peculiarities. While the studies do come from reputable scholarly journals—namely Science and the Journal of Dairy Science—only six studies are cited to support their claims and the most recent of these studies was conducted in 1992, before the FDA even approved POSILAC for use in dairy cows. In addition, a few of the scholars that authored one of the articles cited also authored another one of the articles cited, bringing into question the objectivity and breadth of the research cited. In addition, of the government reports they reference, the most recent was written in 1998, while most are from the early 1990s. Most research that has found a troubling link between rBGH and human health was completed following the FDA’s decision to approve POSILAC’s use (Chan, J. M. et al., 1998; Hankinson, S.E., et al., 1998; Yu, H. et al., 1999; Epstein, 1996). Monsanto makes no mention of any of these studies, but rather chooses to omit them in addition to any study completed in the past ten years.

For an example of how the science of POSILAC pertaining to human health is portrayed by supporters watch the first two videos on the right side

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Citizen Organizations

Citizen science involvement in this debate has been extensive and has manifested itself in the form of non-profit organizations, advocacy networks and wide-reaching coalitions. Two of the main groups it has attracted are consumer advocacy organizations and health organizations. Upon closer examination of these groups and their claims, they also use selective scientific research while ignoring others and, like Monsanto, much of their research is older than ten years old as well.

    The Cancer Prevention Coalition and the Center for Food Safety have been two of the main advocates for the reversal of the FDA’s decision on human health grounds. They have two main health concerns with POSILAC. First, they are concerned about the increased use of antibiotics associated with rBGH injections. As cows are more likely to contract mastitis, they are also more likely to take antibiotics to heal this condition. As a result, more antibiotic residues end up in the milk supply that we drink. These organizations claim that the FDA has an inadequate program for tracking antibiotics. Only four of the eighty-two commercialized antibiotics are regularly monitored, and a Wall Street Journal investigation found that twenty percent of milk contained illegal antibiotics (Bedford, 2000). Citizen organizations often cite scholarly articles that have linked antibiotic resistant strains of diseases contracted by humans to cattle. Such is the case of a twelve-year old boy who contracted a Ceftriaxone-Resistant strand of Salmonella from cattle (Fey et al).  Articles such as these are widely published and discussed among the citizen science community. Robert Cohen, author of Milk, the Deadly Poison, argues in a post to a cyber community of biotech activists that the article linking milk antibiotics to a salmonella strand was only further proof of the negligence of the FDA and Monsanto’s ignorance of scientific evidence (Cohen, 2000).

    The second human health concern surrounds the increase in IGF-1 (an insulin like substance) in milk products from rBGH-injected cows. While Monsanto has claimed that the increase in IGF-1 levels has been shown to be minimal, citing their own study, Citizen science organizations claim that rBGH milk products increase IGF-1 levels and even a slight increase in IGF-1 levels has the potential to increase the occurrences of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer in humans. To support these scientific claims, these organizations cite mainly a few scholarly articles, including one released by the Cancer Prevention Coalition and Food and Water by David Epstein in 1996. The research (Chan, J. M. et al., 1998; Hankinson, S.E., et al., 1998; Yu, H. et al., 1999) postulates that increased presence of IGF-1 in human plasma has been associated with tumor appearances. Citizen science organizations like the Cancer Prevention Coalition have interpreted this to mean that rBGH milk can lead to cancer; whereas the FDA, in response to a citizen petition by Mr. Cohen, maintains that there is no biologically significant difference in IGF-1 levels in milk from rBGH-injected cows, according to government research (Eaton, 2004). In addition, the FDA argues that even the research cited by Mr. Cohen does not claim there is a direct cause and effect relationship between IGF-1 levels and malignant tumors (FDA, 2000). In this way, we can see the citizen science organization interpreting research in a different way than the FDA that supports their own interests.  

    As with Monsanto, the research used by these organizations is selective and ignores widespread research done by the FDA and Monsanto that does not support their own conclusions. Instead of attempting to address this other body of research in their advocacy, these organizations often claim that corruption, ignorance and greed played a role in the FDA’s decision to approve rBGH and thus all of their findings are flawed and influenced by Monsanto. They often refer to some FDA scientists and administrators as Monsanto plants, although they may have good reason to believe so. Multiple FDA scientists who worked during the rBGH process were previously employed by Monsanto and the top decision maker at the FDA in terms of approval and labeling, Michael Taylor, previously worked as a lawyer with Monsanto as one of his top clients (Cummins, 2000).

For an example of how Citizen Organizations portray Human Health Concerns, watch the Video 3 to the right.

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Watch the Videos Below to See how rBGH supporters and opponents use the body of scientific knowledge, through chosen 'experts' to make opposite claims.

Video 1: From FeedStuffs Food Link, an organization that supports rBGH and speaks using similar rhetoric to Monsanto.

Video 2: A segment from American Farm Review explaining the safety of rBGH and the economic benefits to farmers.

Video 3: From the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-rBGH group wanting to be "safe rather than sorry."

Last updated:  5/9/2008


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