"Snort! Snort!" The plump, pink beast comes rumbling towards me as I approach, then attaches its snout to my leg, sniffing intensely, apparently trying to determine if I bring food.
It looks like a Yorkshire pig, behaves, sounds and smells like one. But genetically the pigs at Canada's University of Guelph swine research laboratory are different. They are "greener", emitting a smaller quantity of pollutants in their manure. Thus, their creators named the species, “Enviropig.” And they hope one day the Enviropig’s descendents may be on your dinner plate.
“Certainly one of the goals of the technology is to produce a pig which could be consumed by humans and enter the food chain,” said Richard Moccia, Professor of Animal Science and Associate Vice President of Research at the University of Guelph. “We have done extensive testing on the various internal organs and different meat cuts from the Enviropig, looked at the nutritional content and the amount of protein and fat and minerals and other things contained in the pig. They're identical to a normal Yorkshire pig.”
But no one has ever eaten an Enviropig, said Moccia. It’s not permitted yet. Though scientists first produced the pig in 1999, the University of Guelph conducted extensive testing before applying for approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2007 and Canadian food and health regulators the following year. The University expects the FDA will be first to act and believe the agency is about half-way through its analysis, though the FDA won’t say.
"I think people are particularly concerned about genetic engineering right now and what I can tell the American public is that the FDA has a very rigorous process for assessing the safety of food from such animals, and that no food from a genetically engineered animal will go on the market unless the FDA has demonstrated that it's safe," said Larisa Rudenko of the Food and Drug Administration’s Animal Biotechnology Interdisciplinary Group.
The Center for Food Safety, which advocates organic farming, argues the Enviropig should not be a dinner option: hog farming needs to change, not pig genetics.
“It's a completely novel cell invasion technology where we are crossing the boundaries of nature as no other generation has before. And the question is whether that is safe, whether that is something that we should be doing ethically, those are very serious questions that we as a society need to be asking,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Director of the Center.
Before ruling on Enviropig, FDA will likely make a decision on genetically-altered Salmon. The fish, developed by Waltham, Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, grows nearly twice as quickly as normal salmon. If approved it would be the first animal created in a genetics laboratory to be available for human consumption.
Simply producing genetically-modified pork chops, however, is not a motivation for scientists at Guelph. They’re trying to protect the environment and save hog farmers some money at the same time.
Pigs are polluters. It’s their manure that’s the problem. It’s packed with a plant form of phosphorous- called phytate- that’s contained in corn and other hog feed. Because regular pigs do a poor job of digesting phytate phosphorous much of it comes out in their manure.
That’s important because hog farmers use their animal’s manure as fertilizer. When it rains some of it runs off into the watershed. The phosphorous from hog manure promotes algae growth. Too much phosphorous will creating algae blooms that choke off oxygen in bodies of water – like Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico- creating “deadzones” where fish and other aquatic life can not survive.
The "Enviropig" has a more robust digestive system than its relatives, able to digest plant phosphorous on average 50% more successfully than ordinary pigs so its manure has a far lower concentration of phosphorous than that of normal pigs.
“The Enviropig is a technology to try to reduce the amount of phosphorous that leaves a pig farm. And if you can do that, you can also then reduce and control the amount of phosphorous that gets into the aquatic ecosystem, said Moccia. “So really what we're doing is using the genetic technologies in the pig to try to solve a phosphorous overloading problem into both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.”
Scientists added DNA from E. coli bacteria and from a mouse to a Yorkshire pig’s embryo to create the Enviropig. The E.coli bacteria gene allows the pig to digest plant phosphate, by allowing the pig to produce an enzyme called phytase in its saliva. The mouse gene acts to accelerate the process.
As a result, "Enviropig" does not require a feed additive that farmers provide to pigs to help them digest plant phosphorous. That’s where the cost savings can come in.
It’s less than $1/pig over its life time, according to the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board. But when you consider more than 70-million pigs are slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. and Canada, it can amount to a significant savings, which theoretically could lead to a slight reduction in price for consumers.
Ontario Pork producers have contributed more than $1 million to Enviropig research. Ontario’s provincial government also has invested in Enviropig research which has cost over $5-million.
That investment may yield a good return one day. University of Guelph scientists are talking with a company that hopes to bring Enviropigs to China. And, the school has received inquiries from a half dozen other Far Eastern countries.
What we choose to eat, where we buy our food and how much we spend on it says a lot more about who we are than you might think. Beginning Sunday, September 26, 2010, CNN Newsroom will launch a week-long series dedicated to healthy eating called, “Eatocracy: Mind, Body and Wallet,” kicking off with the rest of the Enviropig debate on CNN Cover Story, Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
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