Government researchers in Denmark are suddenly paying a lot closer attention to the health effects of genetically modified (GM) crops, after a Danish farming newspaper published the account of a pig farmer who reported significant health improvements in his pigs (and in his farm's bottom line) after he removed GM soy from their feed.
GM crops are pretty rare in Europe. Thanks to strict labeling laws on packaged foods, customers have largely shunned products that contain the ingredients, which have been genetically altered to resist heavy doses of toxic pesticides like Roundup and 2,4-D (a component of Agent Orange). But livestock farmers do feed GM corn and soy to their animals. Denmark has the highest swine production rates of any country on earth.
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Ib Pederson was part of that system, which involves factory farming, until he started keeping detailed records of health problems associated with his pigs. A number of piglets were being born with deformities, diarrhea was a rampant problem in his operation, and his sows often suffered from bloat. In April 2011, he decided to experiment with changing his animals' feed, swapping out GM soy–based feed with one made from a combination of fishmeal and non-GM soy, without changing his farm-management practices in any way.
In an interview with the Danish farming newspaper, he said that he immediately started seeing improvements:
• Within two days, diarrhea virtually disappeared in the farrowing house, where sows are allowed to feed their piglets. Prior to that, he'd had to rely on strong antibiotics.
• Since the switch, diarrhea in general has become less of a problem. During the worst epidemics, 30 percent of his pigs had died from the intestinal problem.
• Since the switch, none of his animals has died as a result of bloat or ulcers, compared with 36 deaths from those causes in the previous two years.
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• None of his animals has died as a result of lost appetite, compared with two deaths from it in the previous year.
• The number of piglets weaned per sow has increased by a factor of two, and the piglets are stronger; sows have fewer stillbirths.
• He's been able to reduce man-hours by 20 to 30 hours per month because there's less of a need for constant cleaning and medical attention.
• Even with the added cost of non-GM soy feed, he says he's saved so much money on man-hours and on antibiotics needed for sick animals that his profits have increased by approximately $42,000 per year, or about $93 per sow.
Because there has been so little research allowed on GM crops, it isn't clear whether it was the genetic modification of soy or the heavy residues of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, which remain on GM soy and have been linked to hormone disruption and birth defects in both humans and animals, that was behind the problems he'd been experiencing.
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Just before the article was published in the Danish farming newspaper, the country's Centre for Pig Research announced that it would begin studying the effects of GM soy on pigs' digestive systems. The study, which will begin late this year, will compare GM and non-GM diets on 100 test pigs to see what effect the feed has on the animals.
Whether the benefits of this research will spill over to American farms will be determined once the results come out. But you can still support farmers who raise animals humanely without non-GM feed by purchasing organic pork or pork from local producers who raise their animals on a natural diet of pasture and GM-free grain.