The genetically engineered "Enviropig"

One of most serious impacts of the rapid shift to intensive hog production in Canada is water pollution. By confining and feeding thousands of animals in huge barns, their manure has become a pollutant.

It is expensive to haul millions of gallons of liquid manure, so hog barn operators seek to spread manure on nearby land. The nitrogen and phosphorus in the manure fertilize crops, but too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Many lakes and rivers in Quebec and Ontario, as well as Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba have become seriously damaged due to phosphorus pollution, which occurs when all the nutrients contained in manure cannot be used by crops and instead wash into surface waters with rain water and snow melt.

The solution? Genetically engineer the pig!

That is what the University of Guelph is doing, with funding from Ontario Pork and the Canadian and Ontario governments. As a result of splicing in genes from a bacteria and a mouse, the genetically engineered pig is able to digest phytase, the indigestible form of phosphorus found in grains and beans.

This pig is trademarked “Enviropig” and has been patented in the US and China. But the pigs will still produce millions of gallons of manure which will still be spread untreated on farmland. The manure's odour, salt content, nitrogen content, and drug resistant microbes will not be affected by this genetic modification. Likewise atmospheric pollutants – methane, nitrous oxide, ammonia - will still be emitted from the manure. Enviropig™ certainly does not solve the environmental problems of industrial hog production.

The University expects to sell Enviropig™ breeding stock and collect license fees from farmers who would produce pork for sale to Canadian consumers and for export. However, many hog producers in areas that regulate manure spreading based on phosphorus content (Manitoba, Quebec) now add a phytase supplement to their feed. It has no net cost to producers because it improves feed efficiency - so the cost of the supplement is offset by reduced feed costs. Would hog producers use a genetically modified animal when a much cheaper, more flexible and more acceptable way to deal with phosphorus pollution exists?

Canadians have not had a say in whether or not we want genetically modified farm animals as part of our food and agriculture system. The federal government has stalled the process of developing a regulatory regime for GM animals. Yet Environment Canada has already approved the Enviropig™ for segregated reproduction and for export. The University has asked Health Canada to approve Enviropig™ for human consumption. It is likely that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is reviewing Enviropig™ for feed safety, as the byproducts and dead stock would be rendered for animal feed. All data submitted by the University is kept secret from the public, as it is considered confidential business information. There is no mandatory labeling of GM foods in Canada.

The democratic values of openness, transparency, dialogue and freedom of choice are their absent from the Enviropig™ process.

The solution to environmental pollution caused by intensive livestock production is not to tinker with the genes of farm animals. Pollution is a management problem that can be solved by simple changes such as altering sources of feed, reducing concentration of livestock and changing manure management methods. If we accept genetically modifying animals to allow industry to avoid necessary changes, how far will we as a society go? Where do we draw the line?

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