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Genetically Engineered ‘EnviroPig’ Waiting For US Approval

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In the race to genetically engineer food that is tastier and cheaper, Canada's University of Guelph is instead finding a way to produce meat that may be more environmentally friendly. For more than a decade the UoG has been developing the 'enviropig', a genetically modified line of pigs that are better able to digest and process phosphorus. They are cheaper to feed because they do not require separate phosphorus food supplements, and they are better for the environment because they release up to 70% less phosphorus in their waste. Now in their eighth generation of enviropigs, the University of Guelph is still pursuing US FDA approval, and recently applied for the same from the Canadian Regulatory Agency. If successful, enviropigs could be the first transgenic meat to make a big impact on both pollution and your plate. Should the other billion or so pigs on the planet be nervous?

enviropig genetically engineered pig

University of Guelph's enviropig is better at digesting phosphorus in feed grains, making them cheaper to raise and better for the environment.

Genetically modified food is already on your table. Corn, soy, and rice (the big staple foods) have been GM for a while now, especially in the US, and the practice is growing all over the world. Generally the aim is to modify food so that it is pest and herbicide resistant, as well as bigger, juicer, tastier, etc - and there have been some promising results. Most countries have stalled in accepting genetically engineered meat, however. GE animals seem like a larger risk than plants. It's unclear if or when the public will warm up to the idea of modified meat, but genetic engineering has far more applications than just dinner. GM animals are likely to provide insights into how we may engineer ourselves for longevity, health, and intelligence - though probably not for taste.

For now, the enviropig has some promising advantages to offer, and they all center on phosphorus. Phosphorus is an important element, it's the 'P' in the famous NPK fertilizer approach to increasing crop yields. But that agricultural benefit can also be a curse. When pigs on modern farms defecate and urinate, they release a lot of phosphorus in the environment. With our centralized industrial agricultural system, this means that there is occasionally huge amounts of phosphorus dumped into a small area. When this element is washed into rivers and other bodies of water it can lead to steep increases in algae. Algae blooms disrupt natural oxygen levels and kill fish. In short, pig waste can be an environmental hazard. Enviropigs release up to 70% less phosphorus in their urine and feces. That means a smaller impact and a better chance of keeping balance in the ecosystems surrounding pig facilities.

enviropig genetically modified pig

Eight generations of enviropigs have been raised in Canada since 1999. The genetically modified animals are still waiting for FDA and CRA approval.

Enviropigs also eat better than their non-genetically modified brethren. DNA from mice and Escherichia coli bacteria have been spliced into their genome giving them saliva that helps to digest the phosphorus in grain. Most phosphorus (50-75%) in standard grain feed is indigestible to traditional pigs. Farmers have to give pigs supplements, or feed them phosphorus digesting enzymes (phytase) to keep them healthy. With the mouse and bacteria genes, enviropigs can eat a steady diet of feed grain without supplements, making them cheaper (and easier) to raise.

Why not just feed pigs something other than these grains? Well, those grains are cheap (sometimes because they are subsidized) and can be acquired in the huge amounts necessary to raise the millions of pigs we eat every year. Organic farmers (and other food advocates) point to the subsequent need for genetic modifications as a sign that the entire industrial-agricultural system needs rethinking.

Another concern about GM animals is the narrowing of the gene pool. Already the pigs we eat come from a very restricted number of bulls - yielding piglets that gain weight faster and produce juicer cuts of meats. This narrow gene pool, however, has also made the pigs more vulnerable to infection (amplified by the factory-style conditions of the modern farm). It's important to note that the FDA and CRA applications for the enviropig involve just one lineage of stock (the Cassie line, descended from one of the originally modified pigs). Proper breeding practices would keep the introduction of the enviropig from developing into a monoculture, but GM animals are undoubtedly going to narrow gene pool even further.

Whenever politics and economics come into play it's hard to predict how science will develop. Certainly there are some amazing benefits to be had by exploring genetic modification in animals. Those benefits probably need to be considered in the larger context of our modern industrial agricultural system. There's no reason why we can't pursue the best of all worlds: organic distributed farming ("traditional" agricultural) coupled with a polyculture approach to genetic engineering. No matter what the current politics and economics trends may be, there's little doubt that genetics will have an increasing role in agriculture in some fashion. Dairy cows are being genetically tested for breeding, flowers are being engineered to have different smells - the genie's already out of the bottle. It may be that GE foods, including pigs, will continue to form an increasing portion of our diets. Or we could jump ahead and just start eating artificial meat. Either way we're soon to find out just how tasty science can be.

[image credits: University of Guelph]
[source: University of Guelph, Golovan et al, 2001]

Discussion — 31 Responses

  • Alex April 8, 2010 on 4:23 pm

    WTF?!

  • Alex April 8, 2010 on 12:23 pm

    WTF?!

  • borealis11 April 10, 2010 on 4:59 am

    Say no to GMO. A recent study shows that rats fed GMO foods develop kidney and liver damage. The slant of this article is mm mmm good an’ tasty… as opposed to exposing the very serious and real concerns with GMO’s.

    • Justin borealis11 April 12, 2010 on 9:09 pm

      It is inevitable that we humans improve what is in nature. We have always worked to improve. Don’t believe everything you read, as different technologies enable better results.

    • Ferd borealis11 April 13, 2010 on 6:15 pm

      Really? URL please? You do realize that most, if not all of the food that you eat today has undergone some kind of genetic engineering. Selective breeding is GM. Many foods we have available today were not available say 500 or 1000 years ago, at least not in their current forms. They were bred into existence.

  • Alex April 10, 2010 on 3:13 pm

    Instead of modifying the genes of animals that are causing a lot of pollution in order to produce a lot of them just because we want to, why don’t we show some responsibility and eat less pork because we need to?

    • Justin Alex April 12, 2010 on 9:14 pm

      It seems you have a misconception of the meaning of responsibility. There’s no need to explain as you will understand the day you decide to eat any “irresponsibly” improved food.

    • David Alex April 12, 2010 on 9:48 pm

      lol. I think your at the wrong website if your going to argue against genetic modification. The same problems exist for any food that has to be produced in a factory like setting, not just pork. This at least takes a step at address the environmental hazard of pig factories.

      • Oosammyjooo David March 10, 2011 on 3:15 pm

        It’s all about taking money away from the farmers. Farming is how they live. I come from a family of 7 generations of farmers. All the men in the family lived to be in their 90’s. My great grand-mother lived to be 98. NO GMO’s for them. The government wants to control EVERYTHING. Even they choice of planting your own crops. Pretty soon the farmers won’t have a chance anyway. The plants won’t have a chance to thrive because of all the aerosols they are spreading day in and day out.

    • Susana Alex April 25, 2010 on 6:17 am

      I agree… eat less pork, less meat in general!

  • Alex April 10, 2010 on 11:13 am

    Instead of modifying the genes of animals that are causing a lot of pollution in order to produce a lot of them just because we want to, why don’t we show some responsibility and eat less pork because we need to?

    • Justin Alex April 12, 2010 on 5:14 pm

      It seems you have a misconception of the meaning of responsibility. There’s no need to explain as you will understand the day you decide to eat any “irresponsibly” improved food.

    • David Alex April 12, 2010 on 5:48 pm

      lol. I think your at the wrong website if your going to argue against genetic modification. The same problems exist for any food that has to be produced in a factory like setting, not just pork. This at least takes a step at address the environmental hazard of pig factories.

    • Susana Alex April 25, 2010 on 2:17 am

      I agree… eat less pork, less meat in general!

  • where's the bacon April 13, 2010 on 5:01 pm

    was just wondering, is enviropig kosher?

  • where's the bacon April 13, 2010 on 1:01 pm

    was just wondering, is enviropig kosher?

  • Mike April 23, 2010 on 4:27 am

    “Genetically modified food is already on your table”

    Speak for yourself.

  • Mike April 23, 2010 on 12:27 am

    “Genetically modified food is already on your table”

    Speak for yourself.

  • Genious April 24, 2010 on 4:52 pm

    Playing to be god will eventually create a catastrophe. High technology in opposed to nature, it creates a lot of non biodegradable waste and health risks in their food chains and to minimize those, more high tech has to be created, etc. Eventually it will reach the pint of no return and our extinction.

  • Mike April 26, 2010 on 4:45 am

    There’d better be food labeling saying that it’s genetically modified animals.

  • Mike April 26, 2010 on 12:45 am

    There’d better be food labeling saying that it’s genetically modified animals.

  • Uncle B June 9, 2010 on 1:02 pm

    In a starving world any attempt to produce more, cheaper, food is a good idea! Next we need to can the stuff as Spam and send it abroad! Americans won’t be able to eat all the extra meat – they already turn their noses up at Pork and over-production of Pork in Canada is often government compensated! There are other problems aside from producing cheap protein that must also be tackled, and not by rabid barracuda Capitalists and heart-chilling, bottom line in black ink specialists, the corporatists! To properly exploit a cheaper source of protein in a given society the very fabric of that society must be altered, by legislation, so the benefit is towards the society, and not just a few shareholders of patents!

  • Uncle B June 9, 2010 on 9:02 am

    In a starving world any attempt to produce more, cheaper, food is a good idea! Next we need to can the stuff as Spam and send it abroad! Americans won’t be able to eat all the extra meat – they already turn their noses up at Pork and over-production of Pork in Canada is often government compensated! There are other problems aside from producing cheap protein that must also be tackled, and not by rabid barracuda Capitalists and heart-chilling, bottom line in black ink specialists, the corporatists! To properly exploit a cheaper source of protein in a given society the very fabric of that society must be altered, by legislation, so the benefit is towards the society, and not just a few shareholders of patents!

  • Reglarocks5625 October 1, 2010 on 3:51 pm

    i think that no fair for animal

    • alex Reglarocks5625 November 18, 2010 on 11:21 pm

      thank you for that generalization, it was really helpful……

  • lisa November 25, 2010 on 4:21 pm

    wtf why are they coming up with enviropigs???

  • Myshortreview February 27, 2011 on 11:08 pm

    sorry, i do not eat pig

  • borealis11 Genetically Engineered ‘EnviroPig’ Waiting for Approval in US and Canada | Republic Broadcasting Network April 10, 2010 on 12:59 am

    Say no to GMO. A recent study shows that rats fed GMO foods develop kidney and liver damage. The slant of this article is mm mmm good an’ tasty… as opposed to exposing the very serious and real concerns with GMO’s.

  • Genious Genetically Engineered ‘EnviroPig’ Waiting for Approval in US and Canada | Republic Broadcasting Network April 24, 2010 on 12:52 pm

    Playing to be god will eventually create a catastrophe. High technology in opposed to nature, it creates a lot of non biodegradable waste and health risks in their food chains and to minimize those, more high tech has to be created, etc. Eventually it will reach the pint of no return and our extinction.

  • Justin borealis11 April 12, 2010 on 5:09 pm

    It is inevitable that we humans improve what is in nature. We have always worked to improve. Don’t believe everything you read, as different technologies enable better results.

  • Ferd borealis11 April 13, 2010 on 2:15 pm

    Really? URL please? You do realize that most, if not all of the food that you eat today has undergone some kind of genetic engineering. Selective breeding is GM. Many foods we have available today were not available say 500 or 1000 years ago, at least not in their current forms. They were bred into existence.