Got a Little More Than Milk?

Students get a glimpse into the corporate-controlled food system by looking at the politics of food

By Tim Swinehart

Illustrator: Sue Coe

Illustration: Sue Coe

“Got milk? Want strong bones? Drink milk. Want healthy teeth? Drink milk. Want big muscles? Drink milk.”

“The glass of milk looks nice and cold and refreshing. If I had a warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie, it would make my day. They go perfect together.”

Ari and Colin could have been writing radio spots for the Oregon Dairyman’s Association, but instead they were writing about the glass of milk I had set out moments earlier in the middle of the classroom. My instructions to the students were simple: “Describe the glass of milk sitting before you. What does it make you think of? Does it bring back memories? Do you have any questions about the milk? An ode to milk?”

From the front row, Carl said, “Mmmmm… I’m thirsty. Can I drink it?”

“Why don’t you wait until the end of the period and then I’ll check back with you on that, Carl,” I responded.

We had spent the last couple weeks discussing the politics of food in my untracked 11th grade global studies classes. And while students — mostly working class and European Ameri-can — were beginning to show signs of an increased awareness about the implications of their own food choices, I wanted to find an issue that they would be sure to relate to on a personal level. One of my goals in designing a unit about food was to give students the opportunity to make some intimate connections between the social and cultural politics of globalization and the choices we make as individual consumers and as a society as a whole. A central organizing theme of the unit was choice, which we examined from multiple perspectives: How much choice do you have about the food that you eat? Do these choices matter? Does knowledge about the source/history of our food affect our ability to make true choices about our food? How does corporate control of the global food supply affect our choices and the choices of people around the world?

I wanted to encourage my students to continue asking critical questions about the social and environmental issues surrounding food, even outside the confines of the classroom. I wanted to develop a lesson that would stick with them when they grabbed their afternoon snack or sat down for their next meal, something they might even feel compelled to tell their friends or family about.

Milk turned out to have the sort of appeal I was looking for. For almost all my students, milk embodies a sort of wholesome, pure “goodness,” an image propped up by millions of dollars of advertising targeted especially toward children. My students had been ingrained with the message that “milk does a body good” for most of their lives and had been persuaded by parents, teachers, celebrities, and cafeteria workers to include milk as a healthy part of their day. But I believe that my students, along with the vast majority of the American public, hasn’t been getting the whole story about milk. I wanted to introduce them to the idea that corporate interests — oftentimes at odds with their own personal health — hid behind the image of purity and health.

Growth Hormones and Milk

I wanted to help my students reexamine the images of purity and health that milk evoked by presenting them with some unsettling information about the Monsanto corporation’s artificial growth hormone, rBGH. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH — also known as Bovine Somatrotropin, bST, or rBST) is a genetically engineered version of the growth hormone naturally produced by cows, and was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administra-tion (FDA) in 1993 for the purpose of increasing a cow’s milk production by an estimated 5 to 15 percent. Monsanto markets rBGH, under the trade name Posilac, as a way “for dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows, thereby providing dairy farmers with additional economic security” (see But with an increased risk of health problems for cows stressed from producing milk at unnaturally enhanced levels — including more udder infections and reproductive problems — critics argue that the only true economic security resulting from the sale of Posilac (rBGH) is the $300-500 million a year that Monsanto makes from the product.

The human health risks posed by rBGH-treated milk have been an issue of intense controversy since rBGH was introduced more than a decade ago. Monsanto and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that milk and meat from cows supplemented with bST are safe. On the other hand, a number of peer-reviewed studies, most notably those of University of Illinois School of Public Health Professor Samuel Epstein, MD, have shown that rBGH-treated milk contains higher than normal levels of Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Although IGF-1 is a naturally occurring hormone-protein in cows and humans, when increased above normal levels it has been linked to an increased risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Monsanto itself, in 1993, admitted that rBGH milk often contains higher levels of IGF-1. The uncertainty surrounding these health risks has led citizens and governments in Canada, all 25 countries of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to ban rBGH.

The continued use of rBGH in the United States points to the political influence of large corporations on the FDA’s regulatory process. When, in 1994, concerned dairy retailers responded to the introduction of rBGH with labels indicating untreated milk as “rBGH free,” the FDA argued that there was no “significant” difference between rBGH-treated milk and ordinary milk and warned retailers that such labels were illegal. The FDA has since changed its position and now allows producers to label rBGH-free milk. Paul Kingsnorth, writing in The Ecologist magazine, offers one explanation for the FDA’s protection of rBGH: “The FDA official responsible for developing this labeling policy was one Michael R. Taylor. Before moving to the FDA, he was a partner in the law firm that represented Monsanto as it applied for FDA approval for Posilac. He has since moved back to work for Monsanto.” Not an isolated incident, this example illustrates what critics often refer to as the “revolving door” between U.S. biotechnology corporations and the government agencies responsible for regulating biotech products and the safety of the nation’s food.

The story of rBGH in the United States encapsulates many of the worst elements of today’s corporate-controlled, industrial food system. Despite the illusion of choice created by the thousands of items available at the supermarket, consumers have little knowledge about where food comes from and how it is produced. By uncovering the story behind rBGH, I hoped students would begin asking questions about the ways corporate consolidation and control of the world’s food supply has drastically limited the real choices and knowledge we have as food consumers.

To familiarize ourselves with Mon-santo’s point of view, we spent a day in the computer lab exploring the corporation’s website ( I asked students to look for arguments made in favor of biotechnology and genetically modified foods: Why does Monsanto argue that these technologies are important? What benefits do they offer to humans and the environment? Some students were impressed with

a genetically engineered soybean designed to reduce trans fats in processed food, others mentioned drought-resistant crops that require less water.

Drew, however, was skeptical of the language Monsanto used to describe its research and products. “Why don’t they ever use the terms ‘genetically modified’ or ‘genetically engineered’ and always use ‘biotechnology product’ instead? I find it ironic that Monsanto’s ‘pledge’ is to uphold integrity in all that they do, even though genetically modified foods threaten the integrity of people and the environment.”

The Corporation

Carl’s request to drink the milk we had used as a writing prompt made a nice segue into showing students a short clip about rBGH from the documentary film The Corporation (from 29:15 to 32:30 on the DVD). As we viewed the clip, which includes powerful images of cows with swollen udders and compelling testimony from Dr. Samuel Epstein that links rBGH to cancer, students reacted. “Is that a real cow?” “Gross!” “Is that in our milk?” and “That’s messed up, dude!” came from various corners of the room. But while sick cows and potential cancers risks are important, I was hoping to impress upon students how the risks of rBGH have been ignored and hidden from public knowledge by Monsanto and by those who license its use at the FDA.

I showed the clip from The Corporation as a pre-reading strategy for Paul Kingsnorth’s article “Bovine Growth Hormones.” The article is technical and can be a difficult read for some students, so I hoped to encourage their interest and give students a purpose for reading before I passed it out. I asked students to list questions or concerns as I paused the DVD. I was encouraged by their curiosity: “Do hormones get into the milk and how do they affect us?” “Is there pus in our milk?” “Is milk truly healthy for us?” “Why is rBGH necessary, if we already have too much milk?” “If they knew that the drug made cows sick, why do they still use it?” “What can we do about it?”

Then I passed out highlighters and told students to choose five questions from our list and to read “Bovine Growth Hormones” with those five questions in mind, highlighting as they come across important information. The article is quite comprehensive, and students were able to find answers to the majority of their questions, including everyone’s favorite: “Is there pus in our milk?” Truth be told, all milk, including organic milk, has small amounts of somatic cells or “pus” in it, but the FDA has strict quality standards for the somatic cell count (SCC) above which milk may not be sold to consumers. What students learn from the article — and what Monsanto’s warning label accompanying all Posilac reads — is that cows treated with rBGH are more likely to produce milk with increased SCCs due to the heightened risk for udder infections.

With the information from the website, film, and article to draw from, I wanted to give students another chance to respond to the glass of milk still sitting at the center of the room. I asked them each to draw a line under their initial descriptions and to write a second response: “Do you feel any differently about the glass of milk?”

Ari had initially extolled the many health virtues of milk but now seemed equally concerned about possible health risks: “Apparently, I get calcium, pus, and an increased risk of uterine, breast, and various kinds of cancers. Now, when I look at that glass half full of milk, I see cancer in a glass with a thin layer of pus as a topping. Now I don’t think I can look at milk in the same way.”

Ari’s comment brings up a legitimate concern that by teaching students about rBGH, I am scaring them away from milk and toward less attractive alternatives, including soda. Such risks were a constant source of concern while teaching students about the myriad problems associated with industrially produced foods. After learning about the health and environmental risks of pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and genetically modified food, I had more than one student ask in exasperation: “But Mr. Swinehart, what can I eat?”

We are fortunate in Portland, Ore., to have a vibrant local food system that makes healthy, safe, and affordable food readily available. Several Portland-area dairies, including Sunshine, Alpenrose, and the nation’s second largest producer of natural chunk cheese, Tillamook, have all committed to producing only rBGH-free milk products. Because these are not organic dairies, their rBGH-free milk tends to be less expensive and a more reasonable alternative for students than certified “organic” milk. Dairies in many other parts of the country have made similar pledges (see for an interactive map to find rBGH-free products in your area). Being able to recommend these local dairies not only presented students with a viable alternative to giving up milk completely, but also gave them a chance to apply their knowledge of controversial rBGH labeling during the next trip to the grocery store.

Compared to Ari, Eron wasn’t too worried about rBGH’s health risks, but did express a willingness to rethink his decisions as a consumer: “I still love milk and will drink it, but maybe I will make a change and buy organic milk instead so that I don’t get all of the health risks. It seems this might benefit me the most and I will be happy about the choices I made.” Of course, many students will choose to continue drinking milk regardless of where it comes from or what it has in it, but their knowledge of rBGH and the corporate politics behind unlabeled milk cartons, makes this a considerably more informed choice than most U.S. consumers have.

Eron’s comment also raises one of my primary concerns in trying to teach students about the global politics of food. I was confident going into the unit that students would react strongly to issues surrounding the health of animals and their own personal health, but my goals for the unit were larger than this. While I was encouraged to see Eron thinking about the effects of rBGH on his own personal health, I also wanted students to make broader connections to ways the corporate control of the food system takes knowledge and power out of the hands of small food producers and consumers around the world. Do some countries and corporations benefit more from a global industrial food system than others? Do the environmental costs of this same food system pose a substantially greater risk for the world’s poor, who still depend on a direct connection to the earth for their means of sustenance?

Patents on Life?

Since students’ comments during the milk lesson seemed to focus on personal choices, I realized that we needed to broaden our focus from the politics of health surrounding rBGH to include an exploration of how a global food system, increasingly controlled by a few multinational agribusiness corporations, is affecting lives and cultures around the world. I wanted students to look at how corporations are changing the nature of food. Through the science of genetic engineering, biotechnology companies are experimenting with the biological foundations of what is arguably the world’s most important life form: the seed. Biotech companies tend to downplay the revolutionary nature of this new science by suggesting that humans have influenced plant genetics, through selective breeding and hybridization, since the dawn of agriculture.

But because genetic engineering allows for the DNA of one organism, including animal and virus DNA, to be placed in a completely unrelated plant species, it crosses natural barriers that were never breached by traditional plant breeding. Without adequate testing or knowledge of long-term consequences, genetically modified (GM) crops are now grown around the world, posing what many argue is a serious threat to global food security. Through the natural and highly uncontrollable process of cross-pollination, GM crops have the potential to contaminate the genetic code of the traditional crops that have provided people with food for thousands of years.

It is not, however, just the seed itself that is changed through the process of genetic engineering, but the very idea of the seed is transformed as well. By altering the DNA of traditional seeds, biotech companies are able to claim the new seed as an “invention” and secure their right to ownership through the legal system of patents. Global production of biotech crops and the number of corporate-owned patents on seed have increased dramatically over the last two decades. Monsanto alone owns more than 11,000 seed patents.

To help students grapple with the international politics of seed patenting and GM foods, I designed a role play that would encourage them to confront the often unequal effects of the global food system and the global economy in which it operates. I set up the role play as a special meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the primary governing body for international trade law. I asked students to debate how GM foods should be regulated internationally by taking on the following roles: farmers from India, U.S. Trade representatives, European Union commissioners, U.S. consumers, Greenpeace, and Monsanto. I asked them to reconsider WTO rules that set U.S. patent law as the de facto international standard for determining who has “ownership” of certain foods. In the introduction to the role play handout, I explained the following:

You are delegates to a special summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This meeting has been called to debate genetic engineering and patenting of foods. Due to worldwide resistance to genetically modified (GM) foods and the patenting of seeds, the WTO has been forced to reconsider its position on patents and the rights of multinational corporations to trade GM foods and seeds. . . .

Your task for this summit is to determine to what extent GM foods deserve regulation, who should be responsible for any regulations that are necessary, and what these rules should look like.

This “special” meeting included voices that would never be heard at the actual, much-more-exclusive meetings of the WTO, but I wanted students to make their decisions in the role play based on a fuller representation of international perspectives.

To encourage students to begin thinking about the issues at stake in the role play, I asked them to write interior monologues — statements where they imagined details about family, background, hopes, dreams, and fears, all from the perspective of their roles. I wanted to give students the opportunity to create personal connections to the characters they would embody during the role play, while also engaging with the critical issues surrounding GM foods and seed patenting.

Julia’s monologue from the perspective of an Indian Farmer was particularly insightful:

I don’t have the heart to tell my mother about TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights), because I don’t think her body could handle the stress. TRIPS is an agreement of the World Trade Organization, an organization I could have cared less about until a few years ago. TRIPS requires member countries to protect patents on all kinds of life. This means that if someone was to put a patent on the type of rice that I am growing, I would be unable to grow and sell my crop without a payment to the patent holder. In addition, I wouldn’t be able to save my seeds from one year to another — something every generation in my family has done as far back as anyone can remember…. By saving our seed, we become acquainted with every plant on our field. I know that some of the seeds that I have stored away date back to my father’s time. When I plant my saved seed, I plant not only rice, but my heritage.

Of course, not all my students displayed such a sophisticated understanding of something as abstract and complex as international patent law. Looking back on it, I may have taken on a little too much with the content of the role play. Many students struggled to understand exactly how the specific concerns of their characters should translate to recommendations at the WTO meeting. There were times when I felt ill-prepared to answer students’ questions about the international debate surrounding genetically modified foods or the current status of WTO trade laws. I found myself struggling to stay a step ahead of them. But when it came time to discuss the issues at our meeting, I was encouraged by the students’ ability to not only articulate the perspective of their own roles, but to ask the sort of questions of one another that showed a solid grasp of the various concerns represented around the room.

Will, speaking as the U.S. trade representative, said:

It’s our belief that the companies that create GM foods are the most capable of testing them for safety. Companies like Monsanto spend millions of dollars each year on research, so they have an expertise that an international testing body wouldn’t. And as far as saying that people may have allergic reactions to GM foods — well, we just don’t feel that this is a sufficient reason for banning them completely. I mean, look at how many people are allergic to peanuts, but we don’t ban peanut butter, do we?

Amber chimed in as the Monsanto representative:

Yeah, if you think about it, it’s in our interest to produce safe foods. I mean, we want people to keep eating them, right? And I’d like to remind you that the FDA fully approves all of the GMOs that are used in food in the United States.

Colin, representing Greenpeace, said:

But isn’t it true that there are some GMOs that are not approved for use in food for humans? Mix-ups occur. How can we be sure what we are eating? If GM foods aren’t labeled, how can consumers protect themselves?

And Julia, as an Indian farmer, said:

It’s not just allergies that we’re worried about. There are countries in Africa that have refused GM food from the United States because they are afraid that it will mix with native crops and contaminate them. Farmers from my country are worried about the same thing. You tell us that these things are safe, but you’re the same people that made Agent Orange into a pesticide to use on food. How can we trust you?

Although we finished the role play with a long list of ideas for how it could be improved next time, the discussion showed me that my students were leaving with an understanding of the politics of food. They had gained knowledge of the issues of GM foods and patenting and how they can play out on a global scale, privileging a few powerful agribusiness corporations at the expense of the world’s food consumers and small, local farmers.

After several days of discussion, the class decided to follow the “precautionary principle,” which guides policy in many European nations, and institute a worldwide moratorium on GM foods until they could be proven safe, and to require labeling of any GM foods that were approved for consumption. Furthermore, the summit voted to take away the right of any person or corporation to patent food.

Of course, in the real world, the voices of traditional Indian farmers are not heard in the same conference room as those representing the world’s largest corporations. Furthermore, the WTO is not likely to institute a ban on GMOs or radically reform patent laws any time in the near future. In this respect, the role play failed to result in any truly practical solutions to the problems facing farmers and consumers of food around the world. Part of me worries that this does a disservice to students. But after spending close to a month studying the crises of our global food system, I believe that I would be doing students a greater disservice if I didn’t prompt them to consider what a more equitable and sustainable food economy could look like.

When starting the unit several weeks earlier, most students had been unable to see beyond how the choices we make about food affect anything other than  personal health. The milk lesson was intended as a hook to reach students through their concerns about personal health with the hope of transforming this concern into a broader appreciation for our fundamental right to know and control where our food comes from and how it is produced. The current state of the industrial food economy, as Julia wrote in her final paper, “results in a public denied of their right to knowledge and proper choices about their food.” Changing this economy will require the sort of resistance embodied in the role play by the farmers of India and the advocacy of groups like Greenpeace.

One of my greatest hopes in teaching students about food is to foster an understanding of the important role food plays in today’s global economy and the even more important role it will play in creating more local, more democratic, and more sustainable economies of the future.

Additional Teaching Resources

“Just a Cup of Coffee?” by Alan Thein Durning. A short piece available in Rethinking Globalization that encourages students to think about the long, complex path our food follows before getting to us and the environmental costs along the way.

The True Cost of Food. An entertaining short (15 min.) cartoon produced by the Sierra Club (available at that presents the hidden social and environmental costs of factory-farmed, industrialy produced food.

Resources for Teaching About rBGH and Genetically Modified Food

Physicians for Social Responsibility, Oregon chapter “Monsanto vs. the Milkman” Monsanto’s Posilac (rBST/rBGH) Homepage Center for Food Safety Organic Consumers Association

Tim Swinehart ( was a student teacher at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore., when he taught this unit. He currently teaches at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash. In 2002, Swinehart and his wife, Emily Lethenstrom, founded the Flagstaff Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project in Arizona.