Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “What do baseball and dairy farming have in common?” was written by Amanda Smith for the Spring 2008 edition of Rootstock.

As springtime hits the countryside, and baseball season comes into full swing, Major League Baseball continues to be gripped by the scandal unveiled in December that the sport is plagued by players who have used performance-enhancing drugs to hit the ball farther and throw the ball harder. The Mitchell Report, and the congressional hearings that followed, revealed that many players have chosen to take steroids or synthetic hormones in order to give them an edge in the highly competitive sport. According to the report, “Everyone involved in Major League Baseball should join in a well planned, well-executed, and sustained effort to bring the era of steroids and human growth hormone to an end and to prevent its recurrence in some other form in the future. That is the only way this cloud will be removed from the game.”

At the same time, around the country, a different story about synthetic hormones is unfolding. While not a major league sport, dairy farming is also a performance-based industry. Dairy farmers are paid based on the volume of milk their cows produce. Every day as they run their farms, dairy farmers are watching their cows, and looking for ways to run their business as best they can. By watching the cows’ nutrition, ensuring good pasture, and healthy living conditions, farmers can maintain excellent production standards, in much the same way that good physical training and diet can enhance a baseball player’s statistics. However, in the same way that some baseball have chosen steroids to enhance their batting averages, since 1993, some dairy farmers have been using a synthetic hormone to increase their milk cow’s production.

It seems strange to some that in baseball synthetic hormones are the subject of intense scrutiny and scorn by the game’s authorities — should users be allowed to remain in Major League Baseball, or should they be banned, or in some cases, go to jail? On the other hand, in dairy farming, synthetic hormones are considered safe by many industry and governmental authorities. These advocates say consumers do not need to know or be concerned with whether the synthetic hormones are used in producing the foods they eat. Both issues raise the question of performance enhancing drugs: should their use be challenged, or are they simply a fact of life today and into the future?

The issue has become even more evident as more and more retailers announce that the milk in the stores will no longer come from cows treated with rBGH. In March, Walmart announced that its “Great Value” milk will be “rBGH-free”. “We value our customers’ opinions and understand how important variety is in all aspects of the business,” said Pam Kohn, Senior Vice President, General Merchandise Manager, Wal- Mart Stores, Inc. “We’ve listened to customers and are pleased that our suppliers are helping us offer Great Value milk from cows that are not treated with rbST.” Wal-Mart has joined other giant retailers like Safeway and Kroger in this move to respond to consumers’ requests. However, in several states, the governments are now considering whether to try to stop this move away from rBGH. Starting in Pennsylvania last fall, and continuing in Utah, Kansas, Indiana and Ohio, state governments have been considering prohibiting labels on dairy products stating that the milk in those products is “rBGH-free” or “from cows not treated with rBGH”.

Monsanto, the maker of rBGH, argues that there is no difference between the two types of milk. According to Monsanto, and activist groups they support, consumers are being fooled into buying no-rBGH milk, often paying more for milk that the FDA states is just the same as
regular milk. The FDA allows these statements, but asks that producers include a disclaimer that says there is no significant difference between milk from treated cows and untreated cows. According to the FDA, rBGH is safe for the cow and safe for the consumer. However, new demand for rBGH-free milk, as well as organic milk where use of rBGH has always been prohibited, seems to imply that the consumer is looking for milk from cows not treated with hormones. So, why are consumers concerned about hormones — are they questioning why hormones are okay for their cows, but not for their baseball players?

What is a Hormone Anyway?

All animals, including humans and cows, have naturally occurring hormones. Hormones are the chemical messengers in the body — they signal cells to act in certain ways, including regulating growth, metabolism, reproduction or the immune system in the body. Estrogen, testosterone, and insulin are all examples of hormones with which most people are readily familiar. The body’s system works to maintain a proper balance of hormones at all times. Too much—or too little—of a hormone leads to an imbalance that can impact animal or human health or well-being.

As the study of hormones developed in the early 20th century, scientists and physicians became more and more aware of the importance of these chemicals in the body, and the severe effects an imbalance could cause, including diabetes, growth deficiencies, and hyper or hypothyroidism. These scientists began to consider how the hormones could be controlled. Supplementing a missing hormone was particularly difficult, because there was no means at that time for manufacturing hormones, and harvesting natural hormones was also difficult.

In the early 1970s and 80s, technology changed dramatically. Through research and development, scientists were able to begin synthetically producing hormones in the laboratory. By inserting the proteins and amino acids comprising the hormones into bacteria, and allowing the bacteria to grow and reproduce, scientists were able to then harvest the additional hormones in a purification process. These “synthetic” hormones can then be used in medical applications, to help replace or supplement missing hormones in patients’ bodies, returning the natural balance to the system. Countless people have benefited from this process, including those whose diabetes requires insulin injections, or others who suffer from hormonal imbalances.

Performance Enhancers on the Field

What if, however, synthetic hormones are injected when they are not necessarily needed to return the body to balance? What if they are used in an otherwise healthy individual as a means of getting ahead? For many years the issue of performance enhancing drugs, including steroids and hormones, has been an issue in competitive sports such as weightlifting, cycling and swimming. Many remember the dramatic move to strip Olympic Gold Medalist Ben Johnson of his medal following a positive drug test after the 1988 Olympics. The Mitchell Report, issued at the end of last year, focused its comprehensive study on performance enhancing drug use in Major League Baseball. The release of the report made it clear that drugs had made their way into the locker rooms of America’s favorite pastime.

Some question whether there really is anything wrong with using performance enhancing drugs — it is the athlete’s choice, just as an athlete may choose a particular diet or training regime. For others, the problems with performance enhancing drugs are twofold. First, the long-term consequences of steroid or hormone use are not clearly understood, and therefore the precautionary principle is invoked — better safe than sorry. Some long-term effects may include physical health consequences, like cancer or organ damage, and psychological health consequences, including depression and even suicide. Second, there is a perception that the drug use impacts the game, forcing “clean” players to make choices they should not have to make — stay in the game and lose; get out of the game altogether; or join the crowd. Because young athletes are confronted with these questions early in their careers, they often choose to join the crowd, with little knowledge of the long-term consequences.

As professional sports mature, sport-regulating bodies are taking the precautionary principle position, “better safe than sorry.” Better to choose not to allow the use of synthetic hormones and not engage in potentially dangerous activities, both for the health of the players and the health of the game.

Performance Enhancers on the Farm

Dairy farmers across America are confronted every day with the need to make performance on the farm as efficient as possible. Farmers are
always seeking ways to increase crop yields or, on dairies, to increase milk production. Changes in diet, grazing or exercise can affect a cow’s ability to produce milk. Technology on the farm has played an important role in increasing overall production — the tractor, the hay baler, the milking systems, have increased cost efficiencies for a better milk yield.

Recently, biotechnology has played a role in increasing farm production yield. But as with performance enhancers in sports, these new technologies are not without their fair share of controversy. One of the central controversies surrounds the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), and, like baseball, there are those who believe dairy farms should be “clean,” and free of synthetic growth hormones, while others believe synthetically enhanced performance is part of the game. Organic production standards have never allowed the use of rBGH.

Scientists have known for many years that cows injected with natural bovine growth hormone give more milk, however they could not do anything commercially viable with that knowledge because there was no way to effectively source naturally occurring bovine growth hormone. In order to treat one cow, scientists needed to harvest bovine growth hormone from 25 or more cow cadavers. However, with the development of synthetic hormones, commercial application on a larger scale became possible.

Monsanto Corporation developed and patented a synthetic bovine growth hormone in the early 1980s, and began the process of taking that hormone to the commercial dairy market. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) first needed the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being commercially available as an animal drug. Monsanto was required to demonstrate that rBGH was effective for its proposed use (increasing milk production) and created no safety concerns for animal or human health.

The FDA approved rBGH for commercial use in 1993, basing its reasoning on the concept that rBGH is broken down into inactive fragments during digestion, and would not enter a person’s bloodstream. Monsanto provided evidence of several studies on rats to demonstrate both animal and human safety. After approval, Monsanto began selling rBGH (Posilac®)to dairy farmers around the country.

Today, Monsanto reports that over 8000 dairy producers, representing 30% of the dairy herd in the United States, are using Posilac®. The synthetic hormone is injected every fourteen days, increasing the annual production of a dairy cow by more than 10%. Monsanto’s annual sales on Posilac® are estimated to be over $270 million. But, as with Major League Baseball, the use of Posilac® to enhance a cow’s production is not without controversy. Many argue that an animal’s health and well-being is severely hampered. Animal welfare advocates point out that cows treated with rBGH suffer increased udder infections, foot problems, reproductive problems and reactions at the injection site. In fact, the Posilac® packaging itself lists 16 different potential harmful bovine health side effects including reduced pregnancy rates, visibly abnormal milk, hoof disorders, and a need for other antibiotic drug treatments for health problems.

While the evidence is strong that treated cows simply burn out faster than non-treated cows because of the increased demands on their systems, Monsanto counters that FDA approval demonstrates the drug’s safety, and that numerous follow-up, post-approval studies have
demonstrated no difference between the health of treated and non-treated animals. However, rBGH has not been approved for use in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, based on continuing safety concerns.

Many anti-rBGH groups also argue strongly that human health is at great risk from consuming products from animals treated with rBGH. According to the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), milk from treated cows has increased levels of insulin growth factor (IGF-1). All milk contains IGF-1, but there are concerns that the additional levels of IGF-1 can survive digestion and enter the bloodstream. Because there are studies demonstrating that IGF-1 is a factor in the growth of breast, prostate and colon cancer, PSR believes that the FDA’s approval of bovine growth hormone should be reversed. Other groups have challenged the FDA’s approval of rBGH. Most prominently, a petition by the Center for Food Safety has asked that the FDA review its approval and reverse it, based on new information regarding the product’s safety. This petition has been denied, and approval of rBGH remains in place.

Another controversy surrounding rBGH involves the entire dairy industry — pitting those who have chosen to use rBGH against those who have not. Farmers who use rBGH defend their right to use approved substances to enhance their on-farm production. In an industry where farmers have little control over the price they receive for their milk, every dollar helps. The added ten percent production may mean the difference between staying on the farm or not. However, other farmers argue that the use of rBGH continues to feed a glut of milk, so much that oversupply is creating volatility in the marketplace for farmers.

As the awareness of the rBGH controversy has grown, more and more farmers and dairy processors have responded to consumers’ concerns that their milk not be treated with the synthetic hormone. These farmers and processors are turning away from the technology, and in return for doing so, are hoping to receive a small premium. This has led to the labeling wars at the shelf. Is the milk that is labeled “rBGH-free” different? FDA guidance suggests that milk cartons carrying a no-rBGH label should also say there is no significant difference between milk from cows treated, and milk from cows not treated.

While these battles play out in the state governments, consumers are voting with their dollars. More and more consumers are purchasing no-rBGH milk. So much so that major retailers like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Kroger, and Safeway have all declared that their milk will be sourced from animals not treated with rBGH. Many processors are now refusing to pick up milk from farms using rBGH, or are charging the farmers a penalty.

Beyond rBGH

Like baseball, the use of performance enhancing drugs is not going to disappear overnight. But at some point, the use of rBGH will most likely end. Major conventional farming groups are now seeking to end the controversy and return to the days before rBGH.

Organic agriculture is about achieving balance with nature. Giving an animal a drug that would throw off that balance is directly opposed to the organic philosophy. At Organic Valley the use of synthetic hormones in dairy cows is, and has always been, strictly prohibited, and this is verified by an independent third-party certifier. For the consumer seeking the most thorough assurance that the milk they are putting on their family’s table was produced without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, pesticides or fertilizers, a certified organic dairy product is the best choice. We support and encourage all our sisters and brothers who farm and milk cows for their livelihood — we know that farming is one of the most challenging professions around. For those farmers that make the choice to stop using rBGH, we support their right to tell consumers about that choice.