Angela Mulholland, CTV.ca News Date: Saturday Mar. 6, 2010 11:01 AM ET
The Enviropig, a Canadian-designed, genetically-engineered hog, recently edged a little closer to full regulatory approval. But how likely is the pig to ever make it to the dinner tables of Canadians?
Enviropigs are a line of line Yorkshire pigs genetically enhanced to be more environmentally friendly. The porkers, created by researchers at the University of Guelph, have a modified gene that gives them the ability to digest phosphorus in grain more efficiently.
The result? They poop up to 60 per cent less phosphorus into their manure.
That’s a good thing, since the phosphorus in the manure of factory farm animals is known to promote algae growth in water, leading to fish kills and other water problems.
Enviropigs have been under development for well over 10 years, with the aim that they could be one day be sold to commercial hog farmers.
But so far, while the researchers have enjoyed the support of Ontario Pork, a full commercial partner has yet to sign on. And much of the reason for that is the complicated regulatory hurdles of getting the pigs and their meat approved for eating.
One of those hurdles was finally crossed last month, when the University of Guelph announced that it had satisfied the requirements of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, allowing the Enviropig to be produced under strict confinement and control measures.
What that means is that the federal government has determined that the pigs are not toxic to the environment. They are also convinced that the pigs do not pose any other threats to the environment — such as what might happen if the pigs escaped their quarters at the university and integrated themselves into other pig populations. (April here: so what happened to studies on human health? Why do they always miss that?)
Pigs in production? Won’t happen soon
Steven Liss, associate vice-president of research services of the university says it’s an important milestone and means that other facilities can now start breeding the pigs for research — and hopefully, one day, for more.
“This is really the first step in the approval process which, at the end of the day, is intended to get final approval to be able to commercially produce the Enviropig,” he told CTV.ca by phone.
The university has an application into Health Canada, submitted last year, asking the agency to declare the pigs fit for human consumption. Another application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been pending for even longer.
The FDA recently released draft guidelines that outline how genetically modified animals will be regulated. Health Canada has not offered any insight into how it might do the same, though it’s expected they will follow the FDA’s lead.
But the wait for those final approvals could be long. Still, Liss says even after more than 10 years, his researchers are not discouraged.
“It’s been a long haul, but that’s partly because really, it’s still early days in the regulatory approval of transgenic animals particularly for commercial production and human consumption,” explains Liss.
“It’s not just checking off the boxes that the government requires, but it’s also about ensuring that regulators can properly address concerns that the public may have.”
The university contends the Enviropig is just a regular pig, like any other in every way except one: it can produce phytase enzymes in its saliva.
That phytase allows the porkers to break down phytate, which is the indigestible phosphorus in the corn, barley and soybeans that hogs on commercial farms are typically fed.
As it works now, hog farmers generally either supplement their animal feed with phytase or add digestible phosphorus. But either option adds costs to the farmer.
So Guelph biotechnologists decided the answer was to change the pig. They took a gene from — of all things — E. coli bacteria. (The bacteria, as it turns out, are great at producing phytase) That gene was attached to a piece of mouse DNA and then introduced into pig embryos and transferred into a sow.
The first phytase-producing pig — dubbed Wayne by the hockey-loving research team — was born in 1999. Thirty more have been born since.
Experiments have shown that Enviropigs are as healthy as conventional pigs and that the phytase production gene passes along well from one generation to the next.
Liss says the pigs should appeal to commercial hog farmers not only because of their environmental benefits but because they could help producers lower their costs.
“We know that there’s significant risk to the Canadian pork industry, which is not strong at the moment, in terms of the global marketplace,” he said.
But will the pigs and their pork appeal to average Canadians?
That’s an open-ended question. Surveys from Health Canada and others have found the vast majority of Canadians remain deeply suspicious of “biotech” food and concerned about the long-term risks of genetically modified organisms.
That’s despite the fact that about 70 per cent of the food on supermarket shelves already contains GM ingredients.
Liss concedes there will always be a certain segment of the population that will never accept the technology behind Enviropigs. But surveys also suggest that many simply do not understand animal biotechnology or the benefits it can offer.
In the end, Liss says it’s not really for university’s researchers to try to sway public opinion.
“What we do is do the best science that we can. That’s the important thing that the university brings. We’re very interested in commercialization, but what we can best do is bring forth the appropriate science to bear on the question,” he said.