The latest salvo in the GMO wars came last week, and it hit close to home because pigs were involved.
If you follow these issues, you may have seen the paper. The researchers divided a group of pigs into two groups, and fed one standard genetically modified feed and the other non-GM feed. They found a statistically significant difference in rates of severe stomach inflammation, with the GM pigs having more. So, of course, the anti-GM faction hailed it as a smoking gun. The pro-GM faction eviscerated it as a flawed study.
They all missed the story.
We can argue til the cows come home about survey methodology, whether the correlation between severe stomach inflammation and GM feed was chance or causal, and how this study should be followed up (and I talked about some of those things in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post). But one thing is absolutely clear: we need to do something about factory farming.
Lost in the parsing of mild, moderate, and severe stomach inflammation, and the argument over whether it matters is the disconcerting fact that virtually all of these pigs, raised “according to usual industry practices,” had inflamed stomachs. Over half of them had pneumonia. There were many ulcers and stomach erosions (a pre-ulcerous condition), and a good sprinkling of organ abnormalities. One in eight of them died.
Those of you who come here often know that Kevin I raised three pigs last year, in a 2000-square foot pen in the woods. They ate conventional feed, which undoubtedly contained GM grain. We supplemented that feed with foraged acorns, fish skins from a local restaurant, and waste from a nearby dairy. All of which they appeared to enjoy – although it’s hard to tell, since bad manners look a lot like enthusiasm and pigs do eat like pigs.
Our pigs rooted, wallowed, and ran. They had elbow room and companionship. Sunshine, shade, and shelter. If I were a pig, I’d pick a runaround life with GM feed over a factory life with ambrosia. When it comes to a pig’s well-being, lifestyle trumps feed content, hands down.
The bigger question about GM food, of course, is whether it affects human health. But factory livestock farming is a human problem, too. What of the environmental impact of confinement operations? Or the possibility that prophylactic antiobiotic use is contributing to resistant bacteria? Or the repercussions of introducing huge amounts of inexpensive meat, from animals not optimally healthy, into the food supply? Even if we leave pig well-being aside, factory farming should matter for what it does to us.
But we can’t leave pig well-being aside. We raise 120 million of these smart, curious animals every year in this country, and we have a responsibility to them.
Did you see The Muppet Movie? There’s a scene where Kermit, a reporter, is doing a story on why the chicken crossed the road. He’s interviewing the chicken, taking copious notes. Fozzie, his photographer, is shooting the scene. They are so wrapped up in what they’re doing that they miss the bank robbery going on in the background.
And that’s what we have here. GM crops are an important issue, but how can we look a study of pigs showing rampant illness and a disgraceful mortality rate, and focus on whether GM feed caused a small difference in rates of stomach inflammation? How?
Genetic modification catalyzes public outrage while pigs fly, if not quite below the radar, on its periphery. The politics, money, and power wrapped up in GMOs have given that issue traction beyond its potential health impact. And the politics, money, and power all matter, as do the GM crops themselves. We shouldn’t stop talking about them. But there are some pigs out there who need our outrage.