Some have cheered, others have sneered. But by now you’ve probably heard about the whole Starbucks-going-rBGH-free thing. It’s an important story, because Starbucks is not just a market leader, they are also symbolic of all the companies that are now choosing rBGH-free dairy products.
Maybe by now you’ve noticed that when you buy a carton of Stonyfield Farm yogurt (or, okay, maybe Ben and Jerry’s), you see a statement about their dairy farmers not using rBGH, followed by a statement like:
The FDA states no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-rBGH treated cows.
Those things are the result of a fragile peace that exists around rBGH…a peace that may be about to come to a screeching halt.
But wait, you say. Before you go any further…what is rBGH? Here’s my quick, 3 sentence summary:
1. rBGH is also called rBST, which goes by the brand name POSILAC®, and is made by corporate giant Monsanto.
2. It’s a recombinant (synthetic) version of recombinant bovine somatotropin, a.k.a. bovine growth hormone, which is something that occurs naturally in milk.
3. Some dairy farmers give it to cows to increase their milk production.
What can’t be summed up in 3 sentences is the controversy surrounding the stuff. It’s incredibly, dizzingly controversial. Folks on the “pro” side claim that there’s no scientific difference between milk from cows that have been treated with rBGH and those that haven’t, and that anyone who claims otherwise is either a fool or a fearmonger. Those who don’t like it claim that it’s bad for the cows, it can lead indirectly to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and that it might even increase rates of cancer. There’s a ton of history and data here, and sifting through it all is the subject for an entire blog in itself. You can get started by reading this Wikipedia post (note that its neutrality is “in dispute,” although I don’t think it seems extreme either way). Things that strike me as I think about all this:
- rBGH can increase milk production by an average of more than 10%. If you’re examining simply the cost of milk, this increased production might be good for consumers (although critics might argue that there are hidden costs, i.e. more antibiotic resistance). But does increased production mean more money for dairy farmers? Promotions like these suggest so. Adam Smith — remember him? of the law o’ supply and demand? — would probably beg to differ, as would others.
- A Canadian meta-analysis showed some harmful effects to the cows from use of the rBGH: among them an increase in mastitis among cows treated, and a likely increase risk of lameness and a shorter life span. Farmers treat mastitis with antibiotics, which is where concerns about antibiotic resistance comes in (the antibiotics do not enter the milk itself).
- Apparently Monsanto’s own data shows that use of the stuff appears to raise the amount of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) in milk, which may increase twinning in humans, and may increase risks of cancer. Or maybe not.
- Although it’s approved in the U.S. (where Monsanto is based, and where they spent $22 million in lobbying between 1998 and 2004), it is banned in Canada, all countries in the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand.
Which brings me to those labels, the ones that basically say “our farmers don’t use the stuff, but the FDA says there’s no difference.” Those labels are there, because in 2003, a Maine dairy farmer, Oakhurst, labeled their milk with the statement “Our pledge: no artificial growth hormones.” Monsanto sued the company, which many claimed was a warning to any other dairy who wanted to label their products the same way, and which Monsanto said was simply to protect consumers from misleading labeling. Tons of sites give this history of this epic battle. Anyhow, that’s how those seemingly illogical labels started appearing on milk and yogurt containers. Which seemed to satisfy everyone…
Recently, Monsanto filed a press release that signaled a new letter campaign to convince the FDA to dis-allow current labeling practices. The Organic Consumers Association responded by saying that Monsanto had declared war.
What do I think of all this hullabaloo? Well, it won’t surprise many of you that I’m for knowing as much as possible about what we eat, and how it came to be. Plus, Monsanto’s interest in the labeling issue just seems a little, umm, vested. And some of the highest profile folks on the no-labeling side? Lots of them receive funding from Monsanto. Oh, yeah – and since the FDA official who was in charge of rBGH labeling issues was none other than Michael R. Taylor — who previously worked as a lawyer for Monsanto…and then went BACK to work for Monsanto after he wrote the FDA labeling policy — the whole thing just seems a little…umm…unsavory.
All that said, is it possible I just don’t understand the science? Sure. So let’s go with that for a moment. Let’s just say that my preference for rBGH-free dairy comes only because I’ve been fooled by activist groups. Let’s just say for a moment that I am a weak, silly person who has been manipulated by fearmongers into spending more money on something that makes no difference. I’m not proud, so okay — let’s just say that.
Here’s the thing (and here, folks, is where my rant begins): It seems like I should have the right to make this choice anyway. This is, after all, a private transaction. I’m an adult. I’m using my own money. Starbucks, or Stonyfield Farms, or Safeway, or Ben, or Jerry, is telling me something factual (fact: “our dairy farmers pledge not to use a product.”), and I choose to buy it, or I don’t. They’re telling me how they run their business, and I’m choosing how to spend my money.
Don’t I have the right to spend my money sucking down 6 liters of sweetened soda daily if I choose (even though doing so could turn me into an overweight diabetic)? Sure. Then surely I have the right to spend my money on whatever yogurt I choose for whatever reason satisfies me. Even if someone says it’s overpriced. Even if someone says it’s foolish.
That’s a free market. A real free market. Not a “we-don’t-like-what-people-are-choosing-in-this-free-market-so-we-spend-millions-and-lobby-the-government-to-’protect’-people-from-themselves” market. Thanks for trying to protect me from myself, guys. I know you think I’m silly, maybe even pretty dumb. So thanks, I appreciate your interest, but…umm…no thanks.
(though, Monsanto, if you really want to protect my family from unscrupulous marketing, you could have gotten involved in the “7-Up is All-Natural” issue. You could still jump into the Enviga fray. Or, hey: How about you work on keeping candy/soda/snack/sugar cereal manufacturers from marketing directly to my young children? After all, I’m an adult. They’re not. And I could use some help with that, I really could — particularly from such a powerful ally as yourself. Just a suggestion, in case you’re looking for other ways to help).
Anyway, that is my free market rant for the day. I’d give you a recipe, but since Thursday’s little electrical fire, I can’t even boil water in my kitchen. It’s all takeout soup from the co-op and microwaved frozen meals in these parts. Those things, and an occasional rant.