A Look Back at Summer: rBGH, Climate, and Animal Diseases

As summer draws to a close here in DC, it seems like an appropriate time to give a few updates on some of the issues we’ve previously covered in this blog.


According to our friends over at Food and Water Watch, Starbucks has finally agreed to source its milk exclusively from cows that do not receive the recombinant bovine growth hormone or rBGH. As you may remember, rBGH makes cows produce more milk than they would naturally, but also leads to painful health problems, including mastitis, an infection of the udders. And rBGH is yet another endocrine disrupter that people consume not only by drinking milk from treated cows, but also through our waterways when it’s excreted through animals’ wastes.

Climate Change and Animal Agriculture

Several months after the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released its findings about the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, it continues to be a hot (no pun intended!) topic. According to the November 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, the animal agriculture sector (encompassing meat, eggs, and dairy products) contributes 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), more than the entire transportation sector. While the FAO hopes that factory farms will learn to internalize some of their costs, including how to properly dispose of manure without harming the environment, consumers will also have to change their eating habits to make a dent in agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Several environmental and animal welfare organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States and PETA, are using Long Shadow in new ad campaigns that, according to the New York Times, “connect the dinner plate to climate change.”

Foot-and-Mouth Disease and Avian Flu

After the emergence of FMD in early August in two British cattle herds and the subsequent ban of livestock from England into the EU, the government is convinced that the disease is now under control. Farmers and officials were concerned that this latest outbreak might be a repeat of the 2001 spread of the disease that forced the slaughter and burning of some six million cattle and cost the British government $16 billion dollars. As of August 24, farmers can ship both meat and live animals to the European Union.

But Germany hasn’t been as lucky on the animal disease front. The deadly H5N1 strain of the virus was found on a German poultry farm last week, leading to the killing of more than 400 birds, and just a few days ago officials ordered the slaughter of more than 160,000 geese at another farm.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, officials “are going to great lengths” to control bird flu from spreading further. Although prior to May, Vietnam hadn’t had any reported outbreaks in humans or birds in a year, the virus has remerged infecting birds in 18 provinces and killing 4 people. And this is despite better surveillance of poultry flocks, forced cullings of infected birds, and controlling the movement of live birds within the country. The government has also tried to “discourage families from keeping backyard chickens and promote intensive farming” practices—production methods that instead of helping curb the spread of avian flu, may be helping spread it, according to recent research from FAO. (For more on avian flu’s impact on small farmers globally, you may be interested in my article earlier this year in the January/February issue of World Watch magazine.)