University of Guelph Enviropigs

Will Enviropigs Make It To Toronto?

So I hear game is the new pork. No wait, pork is the new pork. At least that's what researchers at the University of Guelph are hoping to find with their genetically engineered wonderhog, the "Enviropig".

The Enviropig is a special little piggy, one who excretes up to 60-75% less phosphorus in its piggy poop. This is important, because last year in Ontario alone 3.9 million hogs were raised, each producing about 900kg of waste. This waste is often spread on farmland as a fertilizer.

The excess phosphorus present in most pig feces makes its way through the soil and what isn't used by plants gets into ground water, and eventually into bodies of water. Once there, the phosphorus encourages the rapid growth of algae; algae that hogs the water's oxygen supply and causes fish kills.

The Enviropig was first developed in 1999 by University of Guelph researchers when they spliced together a gene from mice responsible for salivary excretion and a phytase gene from a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli to create a transgene, also known as a recombinant DNA (rDNA) construct.

The rDNA construct was then injected into pig embryos and implanted into surrogate mothers. The groundbreaking research was funded by Ontario Pork, a trade association made up of 2,900 pig farmers.

On January 15th the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released final guidelines for industry on the regulation of genetically engineered (GE) animals, meaning that this Enviropiggy could go to market in the foreseeable future. But as the guidelines stand, product labeling for GE animals would for the most part be voluntary.

There is not yet a Canadian regulatory framework for genetically engineered animals, however Health Canada is in the process of developing a guidance document.

Even if these GE pigs, (and any other GE animal that now has the potential to be commercialized) make it to market here in Toronto, is anyone going to actually eat them?

Consumer polls generally show that people are not all that interested in eating GE meats, and if they were to come to market the vast majority agree that they should be labeled.

In fact, natural foods retailer The Big Carrot has launched the "Non-GMO Project" that has phased out all genetically engineered products from its store, and requires suppliers to prove that their products are GMO-free.

And stores like the Healthy Butcher that sell all organic meats won't be interested in the Enviropig either, as organic standards prohibit the use of GMOs. Owner Mario Fiorucci also disagrees with voluntary labeling of genetically modified meat. "The FDA is not requiring the label to say that a product is genetically modified. Why is that? Are they afraid that people won't buy that product? If so, then why allow it in the first place."

Additionally, environmentalists and proponents of organic farming argue that innovations such as the Enviropig are merely band-aid solutions for an otherwise broken industrial production system.

Dr. Rod MacRae from the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University explains: "The enviropig is designed to attenuate one of the problems of the industrial model, but it in no way fits within an ecological design. Certainly hogs excrete a fair bit of phosphorous, but that's only a problem when you've got way too many of them on a limited land base, and you've already got soil with too much phosphorous in it. So, it's a risky strategy to employ for minimal gain, given that it fails to address any of the design flaws of industrial hog operations."

So what is the fate of this little piggy in Canada? Will it get to market? And the bigger question is, if it does will anyone care?

Photo by Cecil Forsberg from the University of Guelph.

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