Pigs, GMOs & Bullshit

So, again, the Internet contends with another negative take on GMOs. Like Seralini’s rat-cancer study from last year, this one involves pigs fed GM and non-GM feed over 22.7 weeks. I don’t have time enough to go through the study, so I’ll briefly summarize the findings of Mark Lynas’ take on the study, as well as another from Weed Control Freaks to show you the pseudoscience indicators:

1st Warning Sign: The results were published in a journal not indexed by PubMed with a low-impact factor; meaning scientists don’t take it seriously.

2nd Warning Sign: The study was funded by The Organic Federation of Australia; i.e., they’re potentially biased. Lynas articulates the position well. Imagine if Monsanto sponsored a study that showed GMOs are safe. The Antis would lose their minds and completely discard.

3rd Warning Sign: The study’s protagonist has a history of anti-GMO activism, and is a cohort of Gille Seralini who himself has a history of anti-GMO activism.

4th Warning Sign: They claim they have no commercial interests, despite many involved with the study standing to gain from increased organic sales if GMOs were shown to be unsafe.

5th Warning Sign: Funding came from Verity Farms (natural product outfit) and The Institute of Health and Environmental Research, which seems to be, according to Lynas, entirely dedicated to anti-GMO activism. Their funding sources are not disclosed, but they solicit donations. Jeffrey Smith and Arpad Putzai are both listed as acknowledgments; the former has no relevant science experience and the latter’s GM potato study that supposedly showed harm is not accepted by the scientific community for methodological errors.

6th Warning Sign: The study showed pictures of severely inflamed pigs stomachs from the GM-fed group against non or mild inflammation from the non-GM fed pigs. Very similar to what Seralini did in his rat study last year. Showing big, fat disgusting tumors from the GM-fed mice, but neglect to show pictures of the control rats who also had tumors.

But, the above are just indicators. In and of themselves, they don’t mean much, but together, they mean a bit; but in science, the data speaks first so let’s get to it. Allow me to summarize some of their findings when he delved into the data himself.

15% of non-GM fed pigs had heart abnormalities, compared to 6% of GM-fed pigs. Liver problems were twice as prevalent in non-GM pigs as GM-fed pigs. (No mention anywhere of these mildly positive findings.) In the four categories of stomach inflammation that was, apparently, the subject of the study: None, Mild, Moderate, Severe. In all but the severe section, the GM-fed pigs were better off than their conventionally fed brethren. There is no dose-dependent mechanism, so the likelihood that there is a correlation between GM-fed pigs and inflammation is next to none. I happen to agree with Lynas’ conclusion:

My judgement is that, as with Seralini, this study subjects animals to inhumanely poor conditions resulting in health impacts which can then be data-mined to present ‘evidence’ against GMO feeds. Most damning of all, close to 60% of both sets of pigs were suffering from pneumonia at the time of slaughter – another classic indicator of bad husbandry. Had they not been slaughtered, all these pigs might well have died quickly anyway. No conclusions can be drawn from this study, except for one – that there should be tighter controls on experiments performed on animals by anti-biotech campaigners, for the sake of animal welfare.

Another point by Andrew Kniss over at Weed Control Freaks shows that their P-values were sneakily derived. From the four groups of inflammation, they separated them and ran separate statistical tests so that their P-values could limbo underneath the P < 0.05 mark to be confident in. That is, they went fishing for the right values to validate their hypothesis, which was chosen after the experiment run–stomach inflammation–, a big science no-no; the hypothesis cames up front. When all the results were properly subjected to statistical analysis by Kniss, the P-values came out to be, 0.2142 if running a t-test analysis, or 0.2081 when running a wilcox test. So, that is roughly a 20% chance that the results are consistent with chance, 1/5 is a poor marker for a causal effect. When the males and females were separated and analyzed again, the results were even more stark:

Male t-test = 0.5667 - Male wilcox test = 0.5669 - Female t-test = 0.2564 - Female wilcox test = 0.2408

Andrew Kniss concludes appropriately:

If I were to have analyzed these data, using the statistical techniques that I was taught were appropriate for the type of data, I would have concluded there was no statistical difference in stomach inflammation between the pigs fed the two different diets. To analyze these data the way the authors did makes it seem like they’re trying to find a difference, where none really exist.

As Prof David Spiegelhalter wrote to Lynas, so many statistical tests that one was bound to come up positive. Twenty in total were run, and only one, that they had to fish for, showed a result they wanted; which, if we go by the much wanted P < 0.05 that most experiments strive for, lines up perfectly here. Every twenty tests, you would expect one to be random: the severe stomach inflammation that will be paraded around the Internet as “proof” that GMOs are bad for you, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. But, again, it’s not about the science; I doubt they much care about how debunked, criticized, and wrong they are, they only need to create media attention with a facade of science, which Reuters has already bought hook, line, and sinker.

Cami Ryan has another post summarizing rebuttals from around the web of this nonsense study; David Tribe, aka GMO Pundit, also has a detailed breakdown on his site, and I encourage you to read both Mark Lynas’ review (which has been updated now) and Andrew Kniss’ statistical analysis in full.

UPDATE: I mistakenly put the length of the study at two years. David Tribe has since corrected me, it was 22.7 weeks.


  1. I loved that video, but you know you’re going to be accused now of being on the Syngenta tit. Word of advice: lay low and avoid your Swiss chalet for a few months. You don’t want people talking. Oh, and as you’re going to have your head down can I borrow your yacht? :)

    1. Thank you sir. Already got my first Monsanto shill comment the other day. Far as I’m concerned, they’re badges of honour. :) The yacht is all yours!

    1. 22.7 weeks is very precise. That is 22 weeks and 4.9 days. Why would they count 4.9 days? The press release I saw, from the actual study, said 23 weeks. That’s more logical.

  2. I don’t think the first few “warning signs” count. Yes, it is good to be critical of where the data is coming from, but I believe counts as their motives… not reasons to dismiss the data. Like a cancer survivor would be more likely to donate to a cancer study, so a more eco-minded person would be interested in performing this type of experiment. This happens everywhere, across unversities everywhere and including Monsanto companies and Big Pharma as well.
    I see that you have written about the “Appeal to Nature” fallacy. I daresay this article falls prey and uses as tactics to several classic fallacies itself: Strawman (misrepresentation or exaggeration of someone else’s argument to make it easier to attack), tu quoque (criticizing the criticizer), the fallacy fallacy (just b/c something is shown poorly doesn’t mean it is wrong), and ad hominem (attacking your accuser’s personal traits).
    Moreover, 22.7wks is an odd number for a study to use. That is 22 weeks and 4.9 days. Why would they count 4.9 days? The press release I saw, from the actual study, said 23 weeks. That’s more logical. Even if they DID count a day decimally, then that should lend itself to their strive for accuracy.
    Also, I don’t understand the double argument. You mention that there could be implications that gm-diet could be good for a pig’s liver. Then it is stated that none of this should be believed b/c some of the pigs had pneumonia and the data was bad. So which is it?
    Finally, the study was published in the Journal of Organic Systems, a peer-reviewed science journal. Just b/c it has not been around awhile doesn’t mean it is less credible. Peer-reviewed is peer-reviewed.

    1. Well as I said, they are indicators. Warning signs that should keep you wary of the claims. Not to be dismissed a priori but scrutinized a little closer.

      Might I ask where the strawman argument is? The study authors claimed certain things. The data in the study do not suggest a link. Therefore, they are wrong. Plain and simple. I didn’t have to characterize their study as anything but in order to reach that conclusion.

      I attacked no one’s personal traits, only what they have shown to do historically and publicly. All involved had a history of anti-GMO activism. There is no caricature of their beliefs, it’s how they view themselves, and how they structure their online life.

      As for the GM-fed livers (and hearts), I merely point out that those pigs fed a GM diet seemed to have better health for those two organs. I say we should ignore it because it is not statistically significant, just as the inverse isn’t, ‘that GM-fed pigs suffer more from stomach inflammation.’ They don’t, the study is poor, has many biases, and the conclusions don’t follow from the data. There is no double-standard, the double standard is on the authors for picking out one thing (out of the dozens of tested parameters) and pretending that GM food is therefore bad while ignoring that there was more data on the indicating the opposite; none of which was statistically significant in the other end, but it goes to show their bias front and centre.

      Finally, not all peer-reviewed journals are created equal. Furthermore, the “peer-reviewed is peer-reviewed” quote indicates how very little you know about science, I’m sorry to say. Other science journals don’t link to this journal, that makes it suspect, it only publishes articles twice a year, suspect again, what do they do for the other 10 months of the year? It seems more like an organic club trying to prove an ideological bias. Peer-reviewed doesn’t also mean empirically verified, only that a small group of scientists think it deserves to be seen by other scientists, where in this case, it was shredded for being a poor study that at best showed how little they cared for their pigs indicating animal rights violations. In this case, I think calling them scientists is a stretch, but it doesn’t mean it is empirically verified. If you’re interested, read my post “Not All Scientific Statements Have Equal Weight.” If you think just because it is peer-reviewed, then it’s “peer-reviewed” then why do you not accept the 600+ peer-reviewed studies that show no harm from GMOs?

      600 studies vs this one poorly-constructed study. It’s not even a choice.

      1. If you want to understand those against GMOs, and its studies, then you should realize that many consider the studies non-trustworthy. Scientists that actually go against Monsanto and others lose their jobs, their livelihoods. They are silenced before their work can be critiqued by other scientists and the public.
        If we are not allowed to hear their reviews and hypothesis, then how can we believe in the motives of those that refute them?

    1. I would if there was anything to them. The Monsanto Protection Act is a convenient, fictional strawman that many have latched provide support for their position. The ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ doesn’t protect Monsanto, it protects the farmers who have bought seeds from Monsanto or any other biotech company from being unlawfully sued by activists and destroy their farming livelihood with anything but scientific evidence for harm. The ultimate authority still lies with the USDA and FDA with the passing of the act. The ‘act’ is the quintessential example of repeating something so often that people just take it for fact. It has very little to do with Monsanto except for the fact that Monsanto happens to sell the majority of GM seeds in the USA.

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