• After more than10 years, active research into the genetically modified (GM or genetically engineered) pig called “Enviropig” is being abandoned. In late March, the hog industry group Ontario Pork decided to stop funding GM pig research at the University of Guelph and the university is now closing down its active research and ending its breeding program of GM pigs.
Scientists at the university began their research in 1995. In 1999, a team of three researchers in molecular and cellular biology, led by Dr. Cecil Forsberg, named their first GM pig “Wayne.” The university patented the technology in Canada, the US and China.
In a surprising announcement, Dr. Forsberg told the New York Times on April 3, “I had the feeling in seven or eight or nine years that transgenic animals probably would be acceptable. But I was wrong.” He added, “It’s time to stop the program until the rest of the world catches up.” Nonetheless, the GM pig is technologically irrelevant as well as socially unacceptable and is therefore unlikely to ever be commercially attractive. The pig was engineered with genetic material from a mouse and E-coli bacteria to produce less phosphorus in its feces. It could have become the first GM food animal in the world, but it was never needed and it was always controversial. Consumer backlash threatened the domestic and international markets for Canadian pork and with public awareness intensifying in Canada, Ontario Pork decided to remove its support.
The GM pig is an example of how genetic engineering is applied to solve problems that already have one or more solutions. There have always been many solutions to the problem of excessive waste from large hog farms. In addition to structural changes, there is the simple technological fix of a feed supplement that does exactly what the so-called “Enviropig” promised to do. The hog feed supplement (phytase) has increased in effectiveness over the years and is cost-neutral for farmers. Manitoba hog producers are using the supplement and manure management practices to meet new provincial phosphorus pollution regulations.
The University of Guelph never had a public mandate to bring the GM pig to market. Yet even in the face of deep social conflict over GM food animals and dubious commercial prospects, public funds were used to develop the GM pig and support the goal of commercialization. Additionally, public resources at Health Canada were spent reviewing the safety of this GM animal that no one wanted. In fact, the university has yet to officially withdraw its requests for approval from Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
When the university decided to seek commercial interest in the GM pig, it stepped outside the traditional boundaries of university research and became a commercial actor in the biotech industry. The university became engaged in the global social conflict over genetic engineering. It also became party to secret decision-making about GM foods in Canada. By requesting approval from Health Canada, the university became a participant in our secret regulatory system. When the university asked Canadian regulators to assess the safety of the GM pig, it accepted a system that classified its data as “Confidential Business Information” and rather than releasing this information to the public, the university accepted this secrecy as legitimate.
The hard reality now is the 16 GM pigs housed at the university need to be euthanized and incinerated under careful biosafety procedures. This is a necessary step to ensure the end of “Enviropig.” The university will send the genetics for storage and as “sole owner and researcher,” it says it will “continue to have the responsibility to make appropriate decisions regarding future use of the technology.” This means the genes will stay on the shelf at a federal government facility in Saskatoon until the university decides otherwise. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network is asking the university to withdraw its applications for approval from Health Canada and the US FDA in order to finally leave the GM pig at rest.
Despite the demise of “Enviropig,” the first GM food animal could still be introduced because the small US company AquaBounty is seeking approval for its fast-growing GM Atlantic salmon. All polls show consumers do not want GM fish and the aquaculture industry itself says there is no market for it. However, the lack of democracy in genetic engineering means unwanted GM experiments can still be approved.
GM animals are neither commercially viable nor socially acceptable and yet they may still be released into our food system because there is no public participation or debate. There is no gatekeeper between the University of Guelph or AquaBounty and Health Canada. At the moment, there is no public arbitrator to intervene to stop GM food animals. There is only public protest. Find out more at www.cban.ca
Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) www.cban.ca