Farm community divided on GM Enviropig
2. Genetically Altered Pigs Debate Set to Sizzle
1. Farm community divided on ‘transgenic' Enviropig
By PAUL MORDEN, The Sarnia Observer (Canada)
9 March 2011
A small herd of what may or may not be the future of hog farming is living in a segregated barn at the University of Guelph.
Trademarked as the Enviropig, the line of Yorkshire hogs carries a gene with a small fragment of added mouse DNA.
"They reproduce like conventional pigs and they smell and look like conventional pigs," said lead researcher Cecil Forsberg.
The only difference in these "transgenic pigs" is an enzyme produced in their salivary glands that helps them digest more of the phosphorus in the grain they're fed, he said.
Normally "some 50% to 80% of the phosphorus in cereal grains is unavailable to the pig and it passes straight through."
The selling point of the Enviropig is the potential to free farmers from the cost of adding phosphorus to feed, something pigs need.
And because more phosphorus is absorbed by the Enviropig, less ends up in the manure where it can leach into waterways encouraging algae to bloom, killing fish and impairing water quality.
The genetic research began in 1995 and the first batch of pigs were produced in 1999.
After years of testing, the only difference researchers have found is the single gene producing the desired enzyme.
"Now, that one gene makes a hell of a lot of difference to some people," Forsberg said.
That includes Sean McGivern, a regional co-ordinator with the National Farmers Union, which recently urged Ontario Pork to pull the plug on the Enviropig.
"Genetically modified pigs threaten to destroy thousands of years of work by Mother Nature on the pig species," McGivern said.
"Once Enviropig is released into the marketplace, there will be no controlling it."
The Enviropig is currently working its way through the regulatory agencies in Canada and the U.S., with the aim of gaining approval for human consumption.
"What we want to do is to provide another tool in the tool box for improving the efficiency of swine production," Forsberg said.
McGivern said good farm management can already reduce the risks of phosphorus from pig manure getting into streams and rivers.
But, farmers will have to spend more money on commercial phosphorus fertilizer if there's less of it in the pig manure they spread on their fields.
"We just don't see a need for this."
He also warns that allowing genetically modified pigs could harm Canada's hog industry since some countries don't allow imports of genetically modified foods.
"We'll lose markets that we have now."
John Lammers, who raises pigs on his farm near Petrolia and recently served as president of Ontario Pork, said, "It's definitely something we have to be careful with."
Lammers said a percentage of consumers are very concerned about what's in the food they eat.
"And then, there's a bigger percentage of people who just want to go to the store and get cheap food," he said.
"It gets tricky because you have both people you're trying to please, and there's good reasons on both sides."
Forsberg points to the experience with more than two billion acres of genetically modified crops that have provided more than one trillion meals eaten by humans.
It's food that successfully made its way through the regulatory systems in Canada and the U.S., he said.
"And not one single person has gotten ill from the consumption of these transgenic cereals, not one."
If the agencies have done their job ensuring the safety of genetically modified crops, why wouldn't they do the same with the transgenic animals like the Enviropig, he asked.
"For this product to get to market, there's a lot of hoops to go through," Lammers said.
If it does, Enviropig could provide additional cost-saving efficiency to an industry that has struggled recently.
"We've done a lot of belt-tightening the last few years," Lammers said. "Everything helps."
2. Genetically Altered Pigs Debate Set to Sizzle
By Joseph Hall
Guelph Mercury, March 14, 2011
Not even its creators have tasted it yet.
”¨”¨Still wallowing in the bureaucratic muck of regulatory approval processes in Canada and the United States, the genetically modified "Enviropig" is likely years away from potential human consumption.”¨”¨But the battle between proponents of the cleaner-pooping pig and a large chunk of Ontario's "sustainable' farming community may already be coming to a sizzle.”¨”¨
"We're trying to turn the heat up on this," says Sean McGivern, president of the National Farmers Union's Ontario branch.
”¨”¨"It's a file we've been on for a long time, but we just finally felt it was the time to become more vocal about it," says McGivern, whose group represents about 2,500 small-scale farmers across the province.”¨”¨
Developed 12 years ago at the University of Guelph, Enviropigs utilize the tiny splices of mouse and bacterial DNA inserted into their genomes to radically cut the water-polluting phosphorous content of their manure.
At issue, however, is whether the environmentally friendly pig will befoul the market for organically grown pork.
"The real overarching problem that we see is the fact that (there are) no programs, procedures or protocols in place to be able to control the flow of this product," says McGivern.
And, he fears, an inability to ensure segregation of Enviropigs from their conventional cousins would lead to an interbreeding of the stock.
This "genetic contamination", McGivern says, would compromise the value of naturally raised pork, which fetches premium prices and produces higher quality meat.
"When I think of high value pork I think of Omega-3 enriched pork, organic pork, humanely raised pork," he says.
"Those are all the types of pork people are paying a premium price for," he says.
And those are the types of pork products that food-conscious North American consumers may reject if they fear genetic contamination.
"People that are buying those products aren't looking for organic ‘genetically modified' pork or humanely raised ‘genetically modified' pork," McGivern says.
"They are looking for something as pure and untouched as possible," he says.
But Cecil Forsberg, an emeritus microbiologist at Guelph and a key developer of the Enviropig, says such concerns are unwarranted.
Forsberg says federal environment regulations issued in February 2010 on Enviropig containment, stipulate that all of the genetically altered animals would have to be carefully separated from normal stock.
And, he says, a new "pig tag" tracking system already being implemented to trace diseased stock or tainted meat back to their source farms could also be used to ensure Enviropigs don't interbreed with their natural neighbours.
"It's not long until all pigs are tracked, right to the slaughterhouse and right to the food market," Forsberg says.
"And that being the case, then the Enviropig will be tracked like any other pig, so that the pork will be separated out."
But McGivern also says the North American demand for pork, under pressure from other white meats and from stagnant population growth among traditional consumers, may force farmers to look elsewhere for future sales.
And, he argues, the mere chance that the Enviropig meat might be mixed in with normal stock could close off markets in Europe, where opposition to genetically engineered foods is fierce.
Just one Enviropig pork chop detected among a large cargo of natural meat could block the entire shipment, he fears.
"That is an issue that needs to be dealt with more clearly," Forsberg says.
"But the thing is we're not there yet, and this is an issue the government has to deal with."
Despite its Hanna-Barbera cartoon-like handle, the Enviropig is based on ingenious genetic science.
The snippet of mouse DNA inserted into its genome works in tandem with an E. coli bacterium gene that's been slipped in alongside, Forsberg explains.
The mouse sequence switches on the bacteria gene, which in turn induces the pig's salivary glands to produce an enzyme known as phytase.
This phytase, which pigs and other mammals don't naturally produce, allows the animal to break down the phosphorous found in its plant feed much more efficiently.
As a result, the amount of phosphorous coming out the other end of the animal is cut by 30 to 60 per cent.
This reduces the amount of the mineral that can make its way from spread manure into streams, rivers and lakes, where it can produce algae blooms and large-scale fish kills.
It also reduces costs to farmers, who no longer have to supplement their feed with phosphorous.
But McGivern, who operates a 1,000-acre (404-hectare) organic farm near Chatsworth, Ont., says the solution to phosphorous pollution is smaller operations, not genetically modified pigs.
McGivern says the industrial scale "factory" farms that produce most pork in Ontario simply spread too much manure-borne phosphorous for the available crops to absorb.
Aside from being a nutrient, phosphorous is a critical plant fertilizer. And the solution McGivern says, are farms that have smaller numbers of pigs and enough crop anchorage to absorb their waste.
But Forsberg says small farm operations, which literally plow almost all their phosphorous back into their own crops as fertilizer, are not in the offing.
"That's a way to solve the problem, but at this time it's very difficult to see how you're going to farm these small farms." he says. "It's more economical to farm these bigger farms."
Forsberg says the amount of phosphorous in Enviropig manure closely matches the ideal content that plants need to grow.
McGivern points out that phosphorous content can currently be lowered by adding phytase directly to the pig's feed at minimal cost to farmers.
But Forsberg counters that this method is not as efficient a phosphate cutter as digesting Enviropigs, all of which are now confined to university pens.
"And the issue there is that once the gene is there. The pigs perform without any further addition."
Forsberg says that neither he, nor any of his Guelph colleagues have actually tasted Enviropig meat, for fear of running afoul of the regulatory processes.
"Had it been as small as a chicken we certainly would have," he says, adding the university closely tracks the large pigs.
"But based on the chemical composition... we see absolutely no reason why there should be a difference in the quality or flavour of the meat."
Its Guelph creators submitted applications for Enviropig's approval as human food and animal feed to Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in the spring and summer of 2009.
Similar submissions were made two years earlier to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., where 40 per cent of Canadian pork is sold.
In a separate process, Environment Canada approved proposals for the Enviropig's safe commercial production in February 2010. Among other things, the guidelines specify the safeguards farmers must take to separate the pigs from their natural cousins, Forsberg says.
But deliberations on the pig's use as food and feed in both countries are still ongoing, and there is no indication when a decision will be made, he says.
"There is no timeline, they will keep on reviewing the trials, asking us questions until they are satisfied," Forsberg says.
"It's a mystery to us as to how things are developing," adds Forsberg who, to be squeaky clean, will not put a piece of the pig in his mouth until a decision is made.
Having lain relatively dormant as the approval processes unfolded, the issue has likely reared its snout now because of a fish, both Forsberg and McGivern say.
Specifically, a flurry of recent media reports have speculated that the FDA is poised to decide on genetically modified Atlantic salmon for human consumption.
Those fish have been fitted with a growth hormone gene from Pacific Chinook salmon that allow the Atlantic version to reach market size in half the normal time.
"What spiked the interest of people was the submission of transgenic fish in the U.S., the fast-growing salmon," Forsberg says.
"Then the question was... whether the Enviropig would be the second animal approved."
Canada's major meat processing operations are committed to fence sitting on the Enviropig until regulatory decisions come down.
In letters to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, which is spearheading Enviropig opposition, both the giant Maple Leaf Foods and Olymel meat packers said they would take no position until the federal regulators do.