Full Statement by Professor Robert Friendship, University of Guelph on Study by Carman et al on Feeding of Genetically Modified Corn and Soybeans to Pigs

Dr Robert Friendship, a professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph and a swine health management specialist, reviewed the paper [see reference below]. He concluded that “it was incorrect for the researchers to conclude that one group had more stomach inflammation than the other group because the researchers did not examine stomach inflammation. They did a visual scoring of the colour of the lining of the stomach of pigs at the abattoir and misinterpreted redness to indicate evidence of inflammation. It does not. They would have had to take a tissue sample and prepare histological slides and examine these samples for evidence of inflammatory response such as white blood cell infiltration and other changes to determine if there was inflammation. There is no relationship between the colour of the stomach in the dead, bled-out pig at a slaughter plant and inflammation. The researchers should have included a veterinary pathologist on their team and this mistake would not have happened. They found no difference between the two experimental groups in pathology that can be determined by gross inspection.”

Regarding the other finding that the researchers held out as proof that the GMO fed pigs were different was that the uterus weight was different between the two groups. Dr Friendship noted that the authors did not appear unbiased in their discussion. “The research had a number of factors that could not be controlled for. It is disappointing that the authors of the paper did not admit the weaknesses of the study design and caution readers that there may be many reasons for a difference in uterine weight. Unfortunately instead of presenting a fair discussion they made wild speculation about the weight difference such as the heavier weight might indicate cancer. A flaw in the design of the study is that treatment is applied at the pen level and all the statistical analysis is done at the individual animal level. They did not suggest that the heavier uterine weight might be a result of some of the pigs in one pen of 42 pigs reaching puberty, which would be a reasonable possibility or that there may be estrogen-like substances in the feed at low levels. The testing that was performed for mycotoxins which are capable of producing estrogen-like compounds and are common was completely inadequate to rule-out this possibility. Overall the study is flawed but if you ignore the misinterpretation of the stomach colour, the research shows there is no difference in the two groups of pigs.”
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“A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet.” Judy A. Carman, Howard R. Vlieger, Larry J. VerSteeg, Verlyn E.Sneller, Garth W. Robinson, Catherine A. Clinch-Jones, Julie I. Haynes, and John W. Edwards. Journal of Organic Systems, 8(1), 2013

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A Tribute to Field Staff of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

I could not believe it: A frontal thunder storm system had barely crossed southwestern Ontario to reach our Guelph-area farm, and Peter Johnson was already tweeting advice to farmers – how to deal the inevitable soil crusting problem which pounding rain would cause, preventing the emergence of recently planted soybean seeds/seedlings.

That incident is far from unique. Late May frosts triggered early Saturday morning tweets from Johnson, Mike Cowbrough and several other field staffers of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture (OMAF). Because my primary business is field crops, I am not as familiar with horticulture and livestock, but do recall recent tweets from Leslie Huffman, OMAF’s apple specialist (@OntAppleLady), giving 6 AM advice on expected severity of an overnight mid-May frost at blossom time.

This column is not just about a few individuals or only those who use Twitter (though hopefully they all soon will). It’s about a record of solid service to Ontario agriculture – by many OMAF field staffers who are unheralded heroes for Ontario’s second largest (or is it the largest?) economic sector. Because almost all Ontario farms are family owned and operated, this is about service to rural families as well.

I can think of so many ways in which these people make our world better. They play a dominant role (in cooperation with farm groups) in highly successful winter agricultural information programs – like the Southwest ag conference at Ridgetown, Farm$mart at Guelph – and dozens like them, including many organized by farm input/service suppliers. They are quoted constantly in the farm media – public and private. They’ve adapted readily from the days when the “ag office” dominated agriculture in every county, to providing technical advice through the Internet, farm conferences, and via high-quality private advisory services now well established across Ontario.

Their reward, unfortunately, for doing their job so well, is to be taken for granted. When farm groups meet top ministry officials and politicians, their focus is usually on other things – farm income support/stabilization, trade issues, regulatory burdens, research and more. It’s rarely about what old-timers like me called “extension services.” (The newer term seems to be “tech transfer/service”). No need for farm groups to complain about what’s working well.

Indeed, we often tend to forget that these people are even civil servants. They are seemingly available almost all the time, weekends included – farmers’ hours. “Real government staff don’t do that,” or so common perception says.

Another mis-perception is that the most important service to agriculture comes from big breakthroughs – major new genetics, crops, technologies, products etc. – when most of the gains in agricultural productivity come through incremental  changes: better soil management, more efficient use of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, better timing, better marketing – stuff like that. And even when new breakthrough technologies come, it’s the OMAF field staff and their private sector partners who teach us how to use them effectively.

We take them for granted, and I think government sometimes does too – by creating bureaucratic impediments. I am still annoyed, for example, at a former deputy minister’s decision to prevent some OMAF staff farm visits just prior to the last election. ‘Don’t want any potential for bad press.’  (No, this was not publicized; OMAF staff did not blab; only persistent probing dragged the info out of them. But the edict did not benefit rural Ontario.)

And major barriers to out-of-province travel persist – or perhaps have even grown – even when this would/could be funded by farm groups and would help the staffers become even better informed, and provide even better service to Ontario agriculture.

But enough of that. This column is about positives and the need to say thanks. So from this Ontario farm family to OMAF field staffers: Thank you so much, and keep up the good work.