GMO-Fed Pig Study Flawed; Headlines Deceiving

The Huffington Post headline this week screamed frighteningly at consumers on the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), “Damning New Study Demonstrates Harm to Animals Raised on GMO Feed.”  Reuters also sought to raise  alarm with this headline, “Scientists Say New Study Shows Pigs Hurt by GMO Feed.” Both stories were referencing a recent study in which pigs were fed genetically modified (GMO) corn and soybeans. The outcome of the study, published in a somewhat obscure Australian publication called the Journal of Organic Systems, is up for debate. Because National Hog Farmer has a long-standing tradition of bringing our readers research-based information, we were a bit skeptical about the way the research was designed.

While the inflammatory headlines and worst-case-scenario reporting were enough to incite fear in the hearts of some consumers, National Hog Farmer staff have come to the same conclusion as other credible researchers that the science to support some of the conclusions seems to be seriously lacking in significant areas.

Food Safety News approached the topic in an article entitled, “Scientists Debate New Study on GMO-Fed Pigs.”  Food Safety News focused on the potential variance in nutritional composition between the GMO and non-GMO grain fed to the pigs in the study. Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis, told Food Safety News that the lack of a controlled feed-growing environment potentially calls the results of the study into question.  The researchers bought each type of feed from retail distributors, as opposed to growing the feed in a controlled environment.

Mark Hoofnagle, a doctor and defender of science-based research, addressed the research study in his Science Denialism blog.  Hoofnagle notes that the researchers behind the study appear to be active in anti-GMO advocacy groups, and quite possibly had an anti-GMO agenda. He suggests they may have been on a “fishing trip”  to find the results to support their stance. However, he also acknowledges that this study may point to the need for more research.  Hoofnagle says, “So what we have in this study is the first half of a valid study,  but no real hypothesis-driven research to confirm if this 1-in-20 result is real.” He says it is problematic that the researchers didn’t seek to further determine if  the effects could have been caused by the soy component or corn component of the diet. There are no follow up evaluations examining the possible other factors that could have led to stomach inflammation. “So far, one can only conclude that it’s just as likely that this result occurred by chance as it is to be an actual effect of feeding the pigs GMO corn and soybean meal.”

Hoofnagle says that answering for other potential causes and variables is just the first step in a real scientific investigation. “Given the levels of mold researchers measured on their GMO corn, it could have been a result of their source selling them moldy feed,  because the mold levels listed were much higher than are usually found on GMO crops,” he says.


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 “So, to summarize, in this paper the authors performed a large, non-specific screen for potential evidence of harm from GMO crops,” Hoofnagle continues. “Of the many analyses performed, one showed statistical significance for severe stomach inflammation on a pathology scale in the GMO group, but this effect rapidly-disappears if one group’s inflammation is based on broader categories. The clinical significance of this finding can only be determined by subsequent hypothesis- driven research into this potential effect, but it is equally likely this is a result of random chance.” 

Mark Lynas, author of “The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans,” analyzed the research in a blog post entitled, “GMO Pigs Study—More Junk Science.” He says a co-author  of the paper actually has ownership in a firm that markets non-GMO grain. This same firm provided funding for the study.  When evaluating the study results, Lynas notes that 15% of the non-GMO-fed pigs had heart abnormalities, while only 6% of the GMO-fed pigs exhibited heart abnormalities. “Similarly, twice as many non-GMO-pigs as GMO-(fed) ones had a  liver problem.”   Lynas asks, “Why no headlines here?” He proposes that a more accurate headline could have read, “Pigs Fed Non-GMO Feed are 100% More Likely to Develop Heart and Liver Problems, Study Finds.”

National Hog Farmer’s December issue is devoted to reporting on credible, peer-reviewed research results that impact the swine industry. It sounds like this is a topic that is worthy of additional research. We will keep an eye on this issue and keep our readers informed of additional studies as they become available. Where do you stand on the use of GMO feedstuffs in pork production? Share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below, or email

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