More Milk, But at What Cost?
Out of over four thousand species of mammals on the planet Earth, humans are the only ones known to drink milk after infancy. Cow milk, goat milk, and even camel milk are all collected and treated for human consumption in almost every country in the world. All through childhood, our mothers have told us to “drink your milk” and many people continue to enjoy milk into adulthood. Little wonder that, according to Cal Poly Dairy professor Les Ferreira, the dairy industry is the third largest industry in the United States. It’s also the number one industry of agriculture in California, and advances are being made all the time to further enhance the quality and quantity of our nation’s milk, cheese, and butter. However, groups of consumers disagree with some of these advances, saying they adversely affect the cows, the milk they produce, and in turn humans who use the products made from milk.
One of these controversial advances is known as rBGH, which stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone. Also known as bovine somatotropin or prostaglandin, BGH occurs naturally in the cow’s milk production system. In the natural state, BGH serves as a metabolism regulator and helps calves grow. When injected with rBGH, heifers produce more milk than they would without the supplement. Without supplements, a single cow can produce slightly over two tons of milk a year. After the utilization of rBGH, that number jumps to an average of eight and a half tons per cow per year. In some extreme cases, rBGH treated cows have produced more than thirty tons of milk a year.
I was told by Les Ferreira of the Cal Poly Dairy, that today, there are eleven million dairy cows in the United States. Just forty-five years ago, that number was double at twenty-two million dairy cows. With the utilization of modern technology such as automated milking machines and hormones that encourage milk production, the number of cows has dropped, while the amount of milk produced has grown. In the year 1950, the nation’s average milk production weighed in at one hundred sixteen billion pounds. In 1980, that number rose significantly to one hundred twenty eight billion pounds. It has been documented that the average cow of the 1950’s produced half as much milk as the average cow of today.
RBGH works to stimulate the actual production of milk from the bloodstream. The natural BGH is stimulated in the liver to produce more hormones important to the milk production cycle. A cow needs to have given birth to produce milk, and cows with a average five year life span will give birth three or four times. A cow is then milked seven out of nine months of her pregnancy. After the birth of her calf she can be impregnated again in 60 days and ready for another seven months of milking.
The controversy surrounding rBGH has been a long and bitter one. Since it was approved for the United States in 1990, animal rights activists and human health concerns have been trying to get it banned. On a positive note, other than the concern about antibiotics, there are surprisingly few side effects from rBGH milk known to harm humans. Naturally secreted BGH is broken down by the human digestive system just like any other protein, and as rBGH is present in similar amounts it stands to reason that it would be broken down also. BGH does not have biological activity in the human body, as there are no natural receptors for the hormone. To be active, hormones in either cows or humans must bind in a sufficient number of cells to trigger any kind of activity. As BGH is present in such low amounts, the hormone cannot be active in humans.
Supporters of rBGH defend its use by saying it does not affect the cow adversely. Unfortunately, this is not true. Some cows have been known to produce over one hundred pounds of milk per day which puts undue pressure on the udder of the cow, and this might put too much stress on the ligaments that support the udder, causing them to break down. Once the udder breaks down, the cow is no longer able to produce milk and the farmer is forced to kill her. Clearly it’s not a coincidence that since the use of rBGH was approved in 1993, clinical mastitis, or udder infection, rose twenty five percent.
Many leg and hoof problems have also been linked to the use of rBGH. Clinical Lameness, a term used to describe hoof and leg problems, rose fifty percent in treated cows. Many farmers using rBGH reported a loss of milk production due to lameness so severe that the cow could no longer walk. Dairy farmers say that these health problems cause the cow’s life span to shorten by more than two years, ultimately making the use of rBGH counterproductive. However, the company that has sole rights of producing rBGH, Monsanto Corporation, does put a warning label on all packages of posilac, their commercial name for rBGH. The warning reads: “Cows injected with Posilac are at an increased risk of clinical mastitis (visibly abnormal milk). In some herds, use of Posilac has been associated with increases in somatic cell counts. Use of Posilac is associated with increased frequency of use of medication in cows for mastitis and other health problems. Use of Posilac may result in an increase in digestive disorders such as indigestion and diarrhea. Studies indicated that cows injected with Posilac had increased numbers of enlarged hocks and lesions."
Another concern about the use of rBGH is its effect on humans. The main issue involves rBGH only indirectly. It is a documented fact that rBGH causes cows to become less resistant to viruses, and thus get sick more often than untreated cows. When a cow gets sick, it is treated with antibiotics which in turn are secreted into the milk. Doctors fear that through drinking this tainted milk, humans will become resistant to antibiotics that could have been used to treat future illnesses.
After doing much research on this subject, I was curious to see the procedure used by dairies that produce large quantities of milk every day and utilize rBGH to do so. Luckily, Cal Poly’s dairy has a viewing window for visitors, so I arrived in plenty of time to watch the set up and milking process. Everything was sterilized and set up about twenty minutes before the cows were brought in. Groups of sixteen cows were ushered into herringbone stalls, eight on each side, and the automated milking machines attached to their udders. I was surprised at how efficient just one person could be in the milking process. Manually milking that many cows by hand would have taken many times over the hours spent with the machine. In the half hour I was watching, over fifty cows were milked and moved out of the milking parlor.
I noticed that many of the cows had ribs showing and their hip bones stuck out so after the milking I asked the student attendant why they were so skinny. She said, “Even though you can see their bones, they are perfectly healthy for dairy cows. Most of the cows people are used to seeing are meat cows, and they are solid muscle. People think that dairy cows are sick or something because they look unhealthy, but they’re happy.” The student invited me to go out to the barn and look at the other cows so I stood outside of what I knew was the pen for the sick and injured animals. I was surprised at how many there were. Upon observing the various conditions of the cows, I noticed that many of them had severe inflammation of the hooves and lower legs, known as hocks. From my previous research, I knew that these were effects of rBGH and these cows had been receiving the injections for a while.
Other than the hospital pen, three lanes of pens filled with cows spread around the base of a hill. There were the tan colored and beautiful cows, known as Jerseys, and Holsteins, which are bigger and covered with the black and white patches we associate with cows. The conditions looked uncomfortable to me, as they were packed like sardines into small pens, giving them little room to move around. Many cows merely stood in place, shoulder to shoulder, looking through the bars dolefully. As close as the living quarters were, I was surprised to see that the area was relatively clean considering how many cows were living there.
After extensive research, I believe that rBGH should be banned from the United States for several reasons. The main issue I have is its cruelty to the cows. No animal should have to suffer to the extent they do in order to produce a few extra gallons of milk. Another problem with the use of rBGH is how compared to the cost, it is very inefficient. In order to produce twenty-four quarts of milk a day, which is normal for a cow untreated with rBGH, they need to be fed more than eighty one pounds of food. That includes grain, hay, corn, grass and legumes, plus at least forty-five gallons of water every day. If that is how much food a cow needs to produce normal amounts of milk, how much more fuel would they need to create even more milk? The act of producing milk burns many calories, and pushing the limits of the cow’s metabolic system requires even more calories.
The fact that milk overproduction is so unnecessary is the final reason I believe rBGH should be banned. Many dairy farms go out of business every year because their production far overreaches the demand for the product. In the year 1985, farmers were even paid by the government to slaughter over one million cows to reduce milk surpluses. Overproduction of milk can even cost the consumers money. The government normally sets a minimum price for milk in the nation, and they buy the products that are not sold to the public. This method of disbursing the milk surplus can cost taxpayers over two billion dollars a year. There are many alternatives to dairy products; soy milk, tofu, and cheese made without cow products are all readily available. All of these products are specially formulated to simulate the nutrients in milk. I believe that the money used to produce rBGH should instead be used to further expand non-dairy alternatives. No animals need to suffer for soy.