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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: How Our Values get Lost in Environmental Controversies


It has been nearly fifteen years since the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH, sometimes also known as Recombinant Bovine Growth Somatotropin or rBST) for use in dairy cow milk production, but the discussion and controversy over the decision continues. Numerous citizen organizations have rallied against the FDA decision hoping to reverse the use of rBGH or at least compel the FDA to require mandatory labeling of rBGH products. These organizations have been most successful at informing the general public about the controversy and potential hazards of rBGH; however, Monsanto, the biotech company that produces POSILAC, the rBGH product, has also been engaged in their own public relations campaign. Each side has accused the other of misinforming the public using distorted and contrived scientific results. The fact of the matter is that scientific evidence of the effects of rBGH on human health has been largely inconclusive, leading to a significant amount of scientific uncertainty, which each stakeholder seeks to portray in their favor.

The Role of Science in Environmental Controversies

This website will explore how science is often used and abused in environmental controversies and how this can distract from greater value questions. The common thread of arguments throughout this website is related to a work by scholar Daniel Sarewitz called “How Science Makes Environmental Controversies Worse” (2004). He argues that the use of excessive science can distract us from the critical value questions relating to environmental controversies. He provides three reasons for such:

  1. Science gives supporting evidence and relative data to contesting sides of a debate that are chosen partially because they fit into the normative lens and particular interests of each party.
  2. Looking a nature through a variety of disciplinary lenses may be tied to a variety of normative lenses.
  3. Scientific uncertainty is represented through a lack of coherence among competing studies that is amplified by “various political, cultural and institutional contexts within which science is carried out” (p. 385).

    This website will focus mainly on reasons one and three by exploring the portrayal of science in this debate by both the citizen organizations opposed to rBGH and by Monsanto. It will show how these organizations downplay and ignore certain scientific studies while handpicking others that fit their preferred understanding of reality. Additionally, both sides capitalize on the aspects of scientific uncertainty, each portraying it in their favor. This is an instance in which scientific research has really detracted from greater value questions in our society of biotechnology, economics and scientific uncertainty that should be addressed before science can play an effective role in solving this environmental controversy.

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Dairy Cow

Figure 1: A dairy cow lounging in a field

Cows grazing
Figure 2: Cows on a Range

Last updated:  5/9/2008


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