Food Fray

Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food

 Food Fray

Author: Lisa H. Weasel
Pub Date: December 2008
Print Edition: $17.95
Print ISBN: 9780814436400
Page Count: 256
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814401781

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Chapter 8

Got Hormones?

Engineering the Nation’s Milk Supply

Long before the first GM food hit the shelves and far before ‘‘Frankenfood’’

frenzy erupted in Europe, transgenic technology had made its way into one

of America’s most sacred and wholesome foodstuffs: milk. Feeding off the

1980s biotech blockbusters, symbolized by the development of recombinant

insulin in the human drug realm, several large multinationals—including

Monsanto, Upjohn, Eli Lilly, and American Cyanamid—had begun to dream

about making bacteria pump out hefty doses of a recombinant growth factor

called bovine somatatropin (rBST—also known as recombinant bovine

growth hormone, or rBGH). It was rumored that when fed to cows, this

factor would dramatically increase milk production. Company executives

reasoned that large vats of this high-octane hormone could spell millions in

profits—$500 million, to be exact, based on preapproval anticipated sales

figures reported in the Wall Street Journal in 1989.

Tampering with a ‘‘Sacred Cow’’

Indeed, the genetic recipe for rBST had already been patented in 1980 by

Genentech, the company that was about to put biotech venture capital on

the map with Humulin, the recombinant human insulin drug that would

debut in 1982 as the first recombinant human pharmaceutical to be approved

by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But with its agricultural

reverberations, rBST was an obvious piece of intellectual property that belonged

in Monsanto’s stable, and in 1981, the company had licensed the

patent rights from Genentech. A few years after that, Monsanto began largescale

trials treating cows with this magic bullet that it hoped would greatly

up the ante on milk production.

The potential to use naturally occurring growth hormones to increase

milk production in dairy herds had been recognized as early as the 1930s,

but the labor and expense of extracting the relatively small quantities of BST

present in bovine pituitary glands made it prohibitive for wide-scale use. But

five decades later, as the biotech bubble began to swell and new tricks and

tools had come available, researchers revved their recombinant engines at

the thought of churning out artificial hormones that might power the dairy

industry. The potential to produce rBST on a massive scale and use it to

supercharge the metabolism and milk production of America’s dairy cows

in a big way looked like an opportunity just begging to be milked.

By 1985, Monsanto had secured permission from the FDA to conduct

large-scale field trials of the hormone, and cows reacted predictably, increasing

their milk output on cue. But as with so many of their GM food products,

Monsanto lacked foresight and failed to adequately, or perhaps accurately,

consider consumer revolt as one potential outcome. Brashly building its

rBST factory in Austria, Monsanto optimistically anticipated rapid approval

and adoption in Europe. In the United States, the company touted the drug’s

supercharging ability to skyrocket production to increases of 25 or even 40

percent over already elevated levels of milk output in the country—forgetting

that a growing glut of dairy surplus was driving prices down and hurting

farmers at the time. Indeed, in those days, it seemed that almost everyone

except for Monsanto was beginning to question whether the world, or at

least the United States, needed more milk. Milk production in the country

had steadily risen since 1975, while consumers had held their intake steady.

That had led to an ever expanding government buy-back program, costing

taxpayers billions in purchase and storage costs for the surplus.

In 1985, the same year in which Monsanto trooped out its field trials

of rBST, the Food Security Act was adopted by Congress in an attempt to

diminish the price supports that were drowning the program financially.

Dairy herd sizes were cut, often dramatically, through such means as culling

of overproductive herds. While Monsanto naively assumed that the U.S. obsession

with growth at any cost would be a vision that dairy farmers shared,

for many—particularly smaller independent dairy farmers—such a supposition

shot fear rather than enthusiasm through their communities.

This was particularly the case in Vermont, a dairy-rich state that supplies

almost half the milk for all of New England, and where until the last

century cows outnumbered humans. With their smaller-sized farms and

higher production costs, farmers there had been particularly hard hit by the

leveling off of price supports in the face of rising costs. Vermont was, inevitably,

also one of the states where Monsanto had contracted with university

researchers to conduct safety and efficacy trials for rBST.

The practice of involving university scientists in commercial product

trials, particularly in the pharmaceutical field, has increasingly come under

scrutiny for obvious reasons. When scientists conduct research in the public

domain, their investment in the outcome of an experiment is relatively limited.

In such a context, science is practiced as a portal to increasing objective

knowledge about the world, and researchers are inclined to publish their

results, regardless of outcome. But when private interests fund and thus

indirectly control the research process, bias can creep in. At best, experiments

can be abandoned and questions left unanswered if the results of

such forays threaten to turn up incriminating evidence.

At worst, critical components of the scientific method can be compromised,

with data doctored or deleted and important results suppressed. In

such enterprises, when companies control or conduct reviews of research

prior to submission for publication, the ‘‘publish or perish’’ mandate so

often present in academic science can be turned on its head. Documented

cases of research bias in public-private academic collaborations in the

human drug realm are increasingly being uncovered. Anecdotal allegations

that scientists participating in safety and efficacy trials for Monsanto’s rBST

were encouraged to shift or suppress their research questions in a certain

direction or lose favor and funding from the company have made their way

into the grapevine of gripes against rBST.

Whistleblowers and Suppressed Evidence

At the other end of the spectrum are the rare scientist-activists who, when

presented with data that disturbs them, decide to take their crusade to a

personal level, potentially damaging their reputation and opening them up

to charges of bias in the opposite direction. Sometimes, their commitments

to their cause turn out to have been harbingers well heeded. Such was the

case with Rachel Carson, the doyenne against DDT, or Stanley Prusiner, the

proponent of prions as the causative agent of mad cow disease, who was

once shunned but went on to win a Nobel Prize. But in other less celebrated

cases that the world seldom hears about, such scientists are moved slowly to

the sidelines, relegated as renegades to objectivity and the scientific method

and often driven out by the detractors they targeted. It did not take long for

this scenario to develop around the approval of Monsanto’s rBST.

The first of these whistle-blowers, who would follow the latter path into

scientific oblivion, was a Chilean scientist named Maria Lyng who worked

in the agricultural school at the University of Vermont (UVM). In a news

article that appeared in the British magazine New Scientist in early 1992,

Lyng was reported to have been dismissed from her research post at the

university after ‘‘asking awkward questions about the effects of BST.’’ Lyng’s

research had focused on identifying the genetic basis for stillborn and

aborted calf fetuses, and in her work, she had asked to obtain data and samples

from the rBST studies, which she had heard were in some cases turning

out aborted and deformed calves. Shortly thereafter, she was fired from


But Lyng did not leave quietly. Instead, she passed on critical data she

had obtained relating to the rBST trials at the university that ultimately

would provoke controversy. In 1991, Robert Starr, chairman of the agricultural

committee of the Vermont state legislature, had requested data on the

rBST studies performed at the university. They had been handed over by

scientists, but not before the identifying numbers had been removed from

the data, obscuring any conclusions that might be made between rBST and

birth defects in a cow’s progeny. When pressed, the university conceded that

Monsanto had made them do it. The research contract between the university

and the company clearly spelled out Monsanto’s right to veto the release

of any data for a year following the conclusion of the study.

But Lyng, disgruntled and convinced that there might be a relationship

between rBST use and miscarried and deformed calf fetuses, was able to

obtain the data with the identifiers. She passed the information on to a local

activist group, Rural Vermont, as well as to the Vermont House and Senate

agricultural committees.

Monsanto Concedes on Mastitis

After receiving the data, Rural Vermont commissioned a report by Andrew

Christiansen, a state representative and an active member of the rBST debate

through his membership in the state’s House agricultural committee. The

data were a bit fishy, but however they were analyzed, a significant percentage

of the calves from rBST cows or their progeny appeared to be victims of

birth deformities. Their abnormalities included a ‘‘bulldog’’-type dwarf fetus

that was aborted at six months; a ‘‘dipygus’’ calf possessing a double pelvis

and extra legs, which caused difficulties during birth leading to the death of

the mother; and an ‘‘encaphalocoele’’ fetus born to an untreated daughter of

a rBST-treated cow that developed a large fluid-filled cavity in its head. These

were gross and obvious abnormalities, not the kind often seen in short succession,

if ever, in a dairy operation. Certainly the odd birth with a twisted

leg or misshapen hoof might turn up every now and then on a farm, but the

severity and phenotype of these abnormalities were, well, just that: far from


The data appeared to associate more than severe birth defects with

rBST treatment. There were also more minor yet still significant health ailments

that plagued treated cows in the study. The report commissioned by

Rural Vermont indicated the presence of various problems in treated cows

including increased incidence of uterine infections, hoof rot, foot and leg

injuries, and ketosis, a condition that is characterized by partial anorexia

and depression and is accompanied by the presence of byproducts of fat

breakdown, called ketones, in the animal’s milk and urine. A detailed analysis

of the data by David Kronfeld, an agricultural and veterinary expert at

Virginia Tech who was commissioned by the Vermont state legislature, identified

three statistically significant conditions in the rBST-treated cows: an

increased incidence of retained placenta and ketosis, an elevated number of

dead and deformed calves, and a higher number of ‘‘beefed’’ cows removed

from the herd and sent to the slaughterhouse.

When the Rural Vermont conclusions were released, it triggered a

news flurry, especially in key dairy states. Then two members of the U.S.

House of Representatives asked the FDA to review the case and compare

data submitted for review by Monsanto with the results uncovered by Rural

Vermont. However, the numbers were small, and the way that Monsanto

and UVM had reported the results of different studies was confusing. The

data that had been reviewed by the FDA was different from the data from

experiments leaked to Rural Vermont, even though all of the experiments

had been conducted at UVM on behalf of Monsanto.

What was clear, though, however the data were interpreted, was that

the cows given the experimental rBST treatment had a higher likelihood of

health problems, including a fourfold increase in the frequency of mastitis,

an infection of the udder, and a lesser likelihood of reproductive success.

Following this revelation, after previously pleading no difference in bovine

health relating to rBST treatment, scientists from UVM and Monsanto made

a joint public confession in an article in the Journal of Dairy Science that in

their experiments, rBST treatment did significantly increase the occurrence

of mastitis in dairy herds.

This had important implications both for the health of the herd and

because mastitis is usually treated by intramammary antibiotic infusion,

which is a direct flushing of antibiotics into the udder. This in turn prevents

that cow from continuing to produce commercial milk supplies for a set

period after treatment; affected individuals must be marked in some way to

prevent their milk from entering the holding tank. If antibiotic-tainted milk

accidentally enters a supplier’s milk shipment, the producer risks fines or

losing its permit to ship Grade A milk.

From a health standpoint, antibiotics are just one implication of mastitis;

cows with mastitis typically produce clotted or flaky milk and accumulate

large amounts of pus at the site of infection. (While public aversion to antibiotics

in milk is high, consumer sentiment surrounding pus in milk is even

more unrelenting.) Later, once rBST had been approved and was in widespread

use in the United States, the animal rights activist group People for

the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would install a series of billboards

mocking the dairy industry’s ‘‘got milk?’’ campaign, inquiring instead if milk

drinkers had ‘‘got pus?’’ in their rBST-sourced milk.

Of course, mastitis is not limited to cows being given rBST injections.

Any cow can fall prey to mastitis, especially if herd hygiene is not adequately

managed or if milk capacity dramatically increases. This was one of Monsanto’s

arguments against a direct link between rBST treatment and mastitis:

Cows treated with rBST produced far more milk than their untreated counterparts,

and thus one would expect to see a higher incidence of mastitis,

due not necessarily to the drug but to the mere fact that they were producing

more milk—a known risk factor for mastitis in the dairy industry. But the

argument was circular, and experimentally, the incidence of mastitis in the

group treated with rBST was statistically so much higher than the untreated

control group that Monsanto had to concede the link.

Today, package labeling for Posilac—the trade name that rBST is marketed

under—is required to contain the indisputable warning ‘‘Cows injected

with Posilac are at an increased risk for mastitis (visibly abnormal

milk) and may have higher milk somatic cell counts. Have comprehensive

mastitis management practices in place on your dairy before using Posilac.’’

Excerpted from Food Fray:  Inside the Controversy over

Genetically Modified Food by Lisa H. Weasel. Copyright ©  2009 Lisa H. Weasel. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission.

All rights reserved.

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