An 'environmentally friendly' GM pig is not a positive innovation

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Photo: CBAN

For many, the New Year arrives next week. On February 3, there will be celebrations all over the world marking Chinese New Year, and 2011 is meant to be the year of the rabbit. But I worry that this year's honoured animal will become overshadowed by the pig, or more specifically the "EnviropigTM," who you may spot in media headlines over the next 12 months. If there is one New Year's resolution I could advise for you, it's simply this: please, pay attention to this pig.

The birth of EnviropigTM

The history of EnviropigTM dates back to almost 12 years ago at the University of Guelph, where EnviropigTM was officially invented in 1999. Dr. Cecil Forsberg spearheaded a research team with one key goal in mind -- to develop a pig with reduced amounts of phosphorous emitted from its feces. For those in the farming sector, Forsberg's initial cause may have appeared to be both necessary and desirable. After all, it's no secret that excessive amounts of phosphorous from manure runoff in intensive livestock operations has degraded soil and threatened freshwater ecosystems across the country. But EnviropigTM goes about reducing phosphorous through something a little more controversial -- genetic modification.

Here's how it works. The EnviropigTM (from a Yorkshire breed of pigs) has been genetically modified to produce the enzyme phytase in its salivary glands, which is then secreted in the pig's saliva. When the pig consumes its feed, the phytase mixes and is able to degrade phytic acid, a major source of previously indigestible phosphorous already found in cereal grains that pigs feed on, including corn, soybean, and barley. With this source of phosphorous now being digestible, farmers would no longer have to add any phosphorous supplements to the pig's diet. Without any additional supplements of phosphorous, the levels found in feces would then be reduced by 30 to 60 per cent.

So there you have it. Less phosphorous emitted by pigs would result in less damage incurred by soils and waters nearby. Ta-da! Well, not everybody is squealing with happiness over this pig.

EnviropigTM gives green light to factory farming

While EnviropigTM has gained positive attention in both local and international media, it has also been met with concern. Perhaps the most frustrating component of the invention is that it does absolutely nothing to question the practice of factory farming. Even worse, it actually encourages large-scale intensive hog operations to continue utilizing the exact same production methods that aggravate the environment in many more ways than phosphorous output alone. When it comes down to it, EnviropigTM assumes that the pig is the problem, and if the pig can be fixed, then the unsustainable practice of factory farming can somehow be sustained.

Once you think about it from a systemic standpoint, it isn't difficult to come up with other more fundamentally rooted factors that inevitably cause environmental damage in large-scale intensive farming operations.

For one thing, the tremendous size of the operation is undoubtedly a precursor to environmental insecurity, not least economic upheaval. With thousands of pigs being stored in one unit, the level of manure that is created is often so high that it ultimately leeches into the surrounding environment. Economically, the hog industry has been reduced to a handful of corporate conglomerates. Aside from new interest being invested in organic farming and organic pork production, small and independent hog operations have all but seen their last breath, and those thousands of farmers who once were employed by Canada's hog industry have been forced to give up and find something else. While the hog production in Canada has doubled over the last two decades, there are far fewer farms, and more pigs to compensate for the dismantling of small- and medium-sized operations.

CBAN the voice of dissidence

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), has pointed to the irony in EnviropigTM, opposing that the invention has any kind of positive environmental impact, as its name so misleadingly implies. CBAN has launched an informative campaign against EnviropigTM and its possible introduction to the world market. It focuses on two other solutions to reduce phosphorous output from hog operations without genetic modification.

Firstly, CBAN advocates for the dispersal of hog production and reduction of the size of operations. Secondly, CBAN is calling on farmers to change and supplement pig feed, in order to include ingredients that would enable a better feed conversion and reduce phosphorous production. There is actually already a phytase supplement on the market that has been given to pigs for over a decade, and contrary to what EnviropigTM researchers have purported, CBAN suggests that the cost for the supplement has dramatically decreased and is not considered a financial burden for farmers to purchase.

EnviropigTM future to be determined

So why is this year a critical year for EnviropigTM? In February of 2010, Environment Canada granted approval to the University of Guelph for reproduction and exportation of EnviropigTM. But the review process is yet another disconcerting matter. According to CBAN, Environment Canada acted in the EnviropigTM case as a decision maker because the Canadian government has no regulation for genetically modified animals. Currently, EnviropigTM is waiting to be approved by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agency. It is expected that decisions will be made any time in the near future. As the clock ticks, Canadians will soon become aware of whether they have succeeded in introducing the first genetically modified food animal to the world market.

Unity required

The University of Guelph has a certain kind of reputation. Guelph is a supposed leader of environmental sustainability. The city itself is known to many as that little remaining gem in sprawled out southern Ontario that has continued to attract movers and shakers to question and challenge the status quo. But it appears to me that EnviropigTM is moving along without any significant outcry.

Instead it has been celebrated as an innovative, economic, and environmental contribution. Hopefully, if the word spreads further we can demand that our politicians and governing agencies reassess their decisions on EnviropigTM and prevent its entry to the world market. And maybe, for the first time in a very long time, this country could finally witness our government stand up against the ecologically hazardous and economically disparate system that currently characterizes our national farming industry.

Kelsey Rideout is currently the news editor for The Ontarion, the University of Guelph's independent student newspaper, and also writes for FarmStart, a local farming organization in Guelph. A public forum: Facing the negative impacts of genetic engineering on farmers: GE Alfalfa, GE Pigs and Bill C-474 will take place on Monday, February 7, 7 pm, Thornbourough 1307, University of Guelph.

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