Week of 04/22/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any major efforts underway to interest and involve high school and college students in environmental issues?

—Beth Marin, via e-mail

When a handful of concerned undergrads at the University of North Carolina advertised in the Greenpeace newsletter in 1988 for other student environmentalists to connect with, they weren’t sure what kind of response to expect. But within weeks they were deluged with mail, and so they decided to launch the first national network of green college and high school students, the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC).

Today SEAC is made up of over 1,000 student groups at colleges, high schools and middle schools throughout the U.S. and Canada. And since its founding, the group has tallied a number of success stories, including: helping prevent construction of the Hydro Quebec II dam in Canada that would have flooded and destroyed the indigenous Cree Nation’s homeland; starting recycling programs at 200 colleges and high schools; persuading office supply giant Staples to phase out virgin papers and to offer more recycled options; and supporting a successful ballot initiative that helped clean up Florida’s pig farming business.

Another big player on the student green scene is the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), the young arm of the Sierra Club. SSC conducts national campaigns in which each chapter participates, supported by a small staff at the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C. office. SSC’s network of 250 high school and college groups also undertakes local efforts to educate both students and the larger public about the issues. And they provide seminars that teach students how to organize campaigns and lobby Congress. SSC’s major effort right now is the Campus Climate Challenge, taking place at more than 530 colleges where students are pressing campuses to be "models of sustainability" in their transportation, building and energy policies.

There are also organizations that emphasize direct service. The Student Conservation Association (SCA) boasts some 3,000 current members (and 50,000 alumni) in four countries. Calling itself "conservation in action," SCA gets students" hands dirty on a variety of restoration projects that connect participants to the land and provide valuable lessons in the process, hoping that students will be inspired to go on and protect the environment throughout their lives. Founded in 1957, SCA is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2007.

Another approach to student environmental activism is provided by Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!). Since its founding in 1990 by two teens, YES! leaders have traveled the world conducting week-long student gatherings called "Jams," in which groups of about 30 convene to discuss environmental problems and ways to get involved. YES! Jams have involved some 650,000 students in 65 countries, and YES! says that its alumni have gone on to start more than 400 nonprofits working for positive change.

Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGS) are also a growing entity on campuses. Each focuses on environmental concerns as well as on other issues such as world hunger and increasing voter turnout among 18-24 year-olds. They give students resources and tools including guides on leadership, media and campaign organizing. PIRGs focus on giving students experience and education in democratic citizenship by giving them skills that allow them to voice their opinions in an effective manner.


Dear EarthTalk: What’s the deal with rBGH, the hormone given to cows that makes them produce more milk? Why do some groups want it banned?

—David Gray, via e-mail

Cows naturally produce bovine somatotropin (BST) in their pituitary glands, and traces are secreted by the animals when they are milked. More popularly known as BGH, or bovine growth hormone, BST interacts with other hormones in cows" bodies to control the amount of milk they produce.

In order to increase milk production, scientists working for Monsanto spent years in the lab developing a genetically-engineered synthetic version of the hormone called rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone. Monsanto obtained approval to market rBGH (known by the trade name Posilac) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993 and began offering it to interested farmers. Today, about a third of American dairy cows are injected with rBGH, which boosts milk production by about 10 percent.

But the use of rBGH is controversial, due to potential health hazards to both cows and humans. According to the Center for Food Safety (and supported by a 2003 study published in the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research), cows treated with rBGH suffer a 50 percent greater incidence of lameness (leg and hoof problems), 25 percent more udder infections (mastitis), and serious reproductive problems including infertility, cystic ovaries, fetal loss and birth defects.

Such animal health issues can sometimes translate into human ones, as antibiotics used to fight infection can find their way into milk, affecting our disease-resistance. Also, animals given rBGH produce more insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Studies, says the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), have linked high levels of IGF-1 in humans who consume rBGH milk with breast, prostate, colon and other cancers. This suggests that our natural defenses against early cancerous cells may be blocked by IGF-1.

Controversy also surrounds the fact that there are no labeling requirements in the U.S. for rBGH. In February 2007, OCA, along with the Cancer Prevention Coalition and the Family Farm Defenders, filed a joint petition asking the FDA to require cancer risk warning labels on all U.S. milk produced with rBGH. They also asked the FDA to suspend rBGH approval due to "imminent hazard." Analysts doubt the FDA will take the request seriously, despite not knowing what problems with rBGH might arise down the road.

Monsanto maintains that humans digest so little of the hormone that it has no direct effect on our health. The World Health Organization, the FDA and numerous medical associations concur that milk from rBGH treated cows is safe for human consumption. However, many remain wary and, as a result, several nations have banned rBGH, including all 25 European Union nations, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In the U.S., despite lack of federal concern, consumer pressure has led many companies to discontinue the use of rBGH. In January 2007 Safeway announced it would go rBGH-free at both its Portland (OR) and Seattle plants. Others following suit include Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s and Chipotle Mexican Grills.

CONTACTS: Center for Food Safety; Cancer Prevention Coalition; Organic Consumers Association; Family Farm Defenders