The Truth About Bovine Growth Hormone

Milk yields could potentially be increased by as much as 17.6 % if we introduce widespread use of recombinant somototropin to cows, according to Nolan R. Hartwig and Glenda D. Webber of the office of biotechnology at the Iowa State University.

Contrary to the belief of many interest groups, bovine growth hormone does not cause human related diseases nor animal abuses but can create methods of milk producing that are helpful to the industry (Hartwig and Webber). Therefore, we shouldn’t limit the use of milk producing hormone in cows based on superstition rather than proven evidence.

Bovine growth hormone is a naturally occurring chemical in cows and is secreted via the pituitary gland. In the 1930’s scientists began to harvest BGH from bovine cadavers and found an increase in milk production by injecting it into living cattle.

From there, multiple U.S. companies became interested in the hormone and the increase in productivity. The first synthetic version of BGH was created in the 1980’s by the Monsanto Company by manipulating bacteria to secrete the hormone, also known as recombinant DNA. The new chemical, recombinant bovine somototropin aka rBGH, was officially approved for use in the 1990’s then produced cheaply on a massive scale. (Smith)

Synthetic rBGH has had no proven effect on the milk itself. In fact, milk from rBGH treated cows is almost identical to non treated cows. “All milk contains natural bST that is produced by the cow. Milk from bST-treated cows also contains the same amounts of injected bST and no differences can be measured compared to untreated cows” (Hartwig and Webber).

The differences between treated and untreated milk therefore is so minimal that the argument over the content of treated milk can hardly stand. Even the Iowa State University found that “the characteristics of milk from bST-treated cows are within the normal range of variation of milk from untreated cows.

During the first 28 days of treatment, milk fat increases and milk protein decreases slightly. After longer treatment, cows adjust their nutrient intake and the normal balance is reestablished” (Hartwig and Webber). Despite this compelling evidence as to the benefits of treated milk, a 2007 USDA Dairy Survey estimated rBGH use to be in 15.2 percent of all milk producing operations and on 17.2% of all cows.

Who allows rBGH?

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that permits the use of rBGH. The European Union, however, has banned it along with Canada. “Neither Canada nor Europe have approved rBGH, however, due to the health problems it can cause in cows. Even the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius Commission refused, in 1999, to declare the drug safe” (Source Watch).

However the European Union made this decision despite findings from fifty or more intergovernmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations ranging from the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association, the Canadian Institute of Biotechnology and the Canadian Medical Association, Joint FAO & WHO (Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization) Experts, and the European Union’s own Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products (American Farmers…).

“Some countries – including Canada – as well as the European Union have banned the use of rbST. While biotechnology opponents make much of these bans, it is important to note that neither Canada nor the European Union dispute the scientific findings that rbST is safe and effective to use.

They have banned rbST for political reasons… Increased milk production due to rbST use would disrupt a system designed to keep supply in balance with demand. In some countries, heavy state subsidization of dairy farmers is designed to keep them in business at levels of production and with milk prices that would otherwise force them to cease operation” (RBST-Facts.org).

Why support rBGH?

One reason that we should support the use of rBGH and something that should be noted between the relationship between the E.U. and the United States, is that the EU and several other nations have made numerous decisions that the U.S. does not always abide by, from numerous social programs to even the type of government we follow. Just because the European Union has made a decision regarding the use of a substance does not make the decision correct or at the very least does not make that decision the best one to make.

We as an independent nation are responsible for making our own decisions given facts that we ourselves seek to find without relying on a foreign source to do the work for us. For example, plenty of U.S. sources have found that rBGH is indeed safe and that the hype over the drug is strictly political. “In Canada, for example, milk production is “centrally planned,” with production quotas established by government mandates. Increased milk production due to rbST use would disrupt a system designed to keep supply in balance with demand. In some countries, heavy state subsidization of dairy farmers is designed to keep them in business at levels of production and with milk prices that would otherwise force them to cease operation” (RBST-Facts).

Economic advantages.

Another reason to support not limiting the use of growth hormones in cattle is to give dairy farmers an advantage economically. The synthetic hormone rBGH is known to increase the milk yield of lactating cows by about 10% over 30 days. This leads to not only feed conservation, but to an economic boom in an otherwise somewhat static industry. “Milk production in bST-treated cows increases from 4.8 to 11.2 pounds per day. Feed efficiency improves from 2.7 to 9.3 percent” (Hartwig and Webber). Farmers who use this drug safely can cut the costs for feed and the care of their livestock by reducing the number of cows they utilize while maintaining milk yields.

The economy would also be negatively affected by the removal of rBGH. A microcosm of this was explored in Illinois and is outlined by advocates for the group American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology. “The University of Illinois conducted a study to evaluate the impact of removing rbST from the University’s ~200 cow dairy herd. Using typical milk prices and feed, labor and rbST costs, they concluded the economic loss of stopping rbST would be dramatic – ranging from $20,000 to $60,000 less INCOME annually.” (American Farmers…)

Critics of rBGH argue that although it may not be chemically harmful to either species, the excess in production may be harmful to cows. Neither animal nor machine should or can be capable of constant output with no rest. Sustainable Table.org, a part of the GRACE foundation, argues that certain diseases are linked to the hormone use. “A 1991 report by Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, revealed serious health problems with the rBGH-injected cows that were part of a Monsanto-financed study at the University of Vermont. Problems included an alarming rise in the number of deformed calves and dramatic increases in mastitis, a painful bacterial infection of the udder which causes inflammation, swelling, and pus and blood secretions into milk. To treat mastitis outbreaks, the dairy industry relies on antibiotics” (GRACE).

Advocacy groups also argue that the cow could become malnourished due to an increase in milk production without a subsequent increase in nutrient intake. “One lifelong New York dairy farmer reported losing a quarter of his herd to severe mastitis after beginning rBGH injections…A year later, he replaced 135 of his original 200 cows. Other farmers using rBGH report similar problems, in addition to hoof diseases, open sores and bovine death stemming from internal bleeding” (GRACE)

Is it harmful?

Another argument commonly proposed regarding the synthetic hormone is that rBGH is harmful to humans. Critics argue that synthetic hormones such as rBGH cause human related diseases. “There are six hormones approved for use in beef cattle. Two of these hormones, estradiol and zeranol, are likely to have negative human health effects, including cancer and impacts on child development, when their residues are present in meat. Concerns about these potential health impacts have left many scientists doubtful of the safety of hormone use in meat production” (Center for Food Safety). Other critics argue that there are possible links between the specific rBGH hormone and cancer.

“Milk from rBGH-treated cows contains higher levels of IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor-1). Humans also naturally have IGF-1, and increased levels in humans have been linked to colon and breast cancer. Even though no direct connection has been made between elevated IGF-1 levels in milk and elevated IGF-1 levels or cancer in humans, some scientists have expressed concern over the possibility of this relationship” (GRACE).

However, despite the controversy, no one has made any serious argument for the unethical treatment of cattle for the sole purpose of producing milk. In addition, many of the ‘abuses’ inflicted upon cows by the hormone is due to the improper care of the animal while being given rBGH. “Nutrition, health programs, environment, and milking technique must be appropriate for the use of bST or results will be disappointing” (Hartwig and Webber). Furthermore, current animal protection laws would punish those feedlots that abuse their cattle in the event of an unsavory situation for the cow.


One actually noted affect in cows is the lower birthing rate of treated cattle, but even that could be beneficial to the animal in the end. “This negative effect on reproduction is seen in cows treated with bST and is associated with increased milk production. However, some people believe that a longer calving interval could benefit the health of bST- treated cows, since many health problems of dairy cows are associated with calving and rebreeding. The ability of a cow to reproduce is affected by her physical condition, nutrition, health, and level of milk production” (Hartwig and Webber).

Also, rBGH has been scientifically tested and proven to have no effect on humans. The hormone is considered species-specific. “During the 1950s, natural bST produced by cows was injected into children with growth defects in an attempt to encourage growth. There was no effect, probably because the bovine somototropin protein molecule differs from human somototropin” (Hartwig and Webber). BGH contains an amino acid chain that only mirrors its human equivalent by 30%. This makes it scientifically impossible for the human body to recognize or act on the foreign DNA.

According to RBST-Facts.org, “In subsequent investigations [of rbST], the federal government also determined that rbST is harmless to both animals and the environment. In the next few years, these findings were confirmed in independent reviews and tests conducted by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the General Accounting Office and numerous scientific and medical research institutions representing mainstream scientific opinion.”

With this in mind it is hard to see why rBGH should be banned. Multiple organizations have repeatedly found throughout the years that the hormone is harmless to humans and has relatively no effect on the human body despite multiple attempts by advocacy groups to push us to fear these new advances in technology. With the help of advanced methods of industry we can continue to enjoy the economic benefits of genetically modified milk as well as the finished product of our intellectual growth.

Samantha Heggum

Owner- WWW.SmithHeggumreport.com


American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology. “The Facts About Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rbST).” AFACT: American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology. 20 Apr. 2009. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://itisafact.org/2009/04/the-facts-about-recombinant-bovine-somatotropin-rbst/>.

Cancer PRevention Coalition. “Milk: America’s Health Problem.” Cancer Prevention Coalition. 2003. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm>.

Center for Food Safety. “RBGH / RBST.” RGBH/Hormones. Center for Food Safety, 2007. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.

GRACE. “RBGH, Animal and Human Risks – The Issues – Sustainable Table.” Sustainabletable. July 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/rbgh/>.

Hartwig, Nolan R., and Glenda D. Webber. “Bio-3–Bovine Somatotropin (bST).” Office of Biotechnology: Iowa State University. Mar. 1994. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.biotech.iastate.edu/biotech_info_series/bio3.html>.

RBST-Facts. “Facts about BST, BGH and RBGH | Bovine Growth Hormone in Cows.” RbST Facts | Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.rbstfacts.org/rbst-facts>.

Smith, S. E. “What Is BGH?” WiseGEEK: Clear Answers for Common Questions. Ed. O. Wallace. 13 Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-bgh.htm>.

Source Watch. “RBGH.” SourceWatch. 23 Aug. 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=RBGH>.

Washington State Department of Agriculture. “Facts about BST, BGH and RBGH | Bovine Growth Hormone in Cows.” RbST Facts | Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. 2007. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://www.rbstfacts.org/rbst-facts>.

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