News: Messing with nature.


By John Miner
London Free Press

June 21, 2011, 9:57pm

FOOD FIGHT: Genetically modified with material from a mouse, Enviropig could be headed for a dinner plate near you. Supporters argue genetically engineered food is the best way to feed the planet’s growing population. Nonsense, opponents counter.

It sounds like a plot for some weird science fiction flick, cooked up by an overly lubricated campus film club.

Take a pig and, using the latest genetic engineering techniques, turn it into a cow.

But in 1994, Dr. Cecil Forsberg and fellow researchers at the University of Guelph, were keen to give it a try.

Specifically, what the scientists tried was to engineer the digestive system of pigs - an animal with a similar digestive system to humans - so pigs could eat grasses, alfalfa and hay, the same diet as their bovine barnyard colleagues, instead of wheat, barley and other valuable grains.

There were economic and environmental possibilities. For one, such pigs wouldn’t compete directly with humans for food sources.

But the ambitious project failed $- the engineering required turned out to be too complex.

“We had to drop it because we weren’t having success,” $Forsberg says.

It isn’t the only wild-sounding genetic experiment to be tried and abandoned.

Agriculture Canada research scientists in London isolated the gene in fish that allows them to live in waters below the freezing point and injected it into tobacco in hopes they could develop frost-resistant plants.

Transferring the gene from fish to plant succeeded, but the plants froze just the same as others when the temperature hit 0C.

But like some other scientific endeavours that miss their initial goal, something else was discovered along the way of trying to create a new digestive system for pigs.

The Guelph researchers, using fragments of genetic material from mice injected into fertilized pig embryos, found they could alter the output of the salivary glands of their experimental hogs so they excreted less phosphorous in the manure, reducing their impact on the environment.

Enviropig was born.

After years of research to select the best lines, ensure the genetic changes are stable from one generation to the next, and food safety tests, the researchers submitted their data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Canadian government four years ago. It is still being evaluated.

If it wins the required regulatory approval in Canada and United States, Enviropig, or “mouse-pig” as it has been dubbed by opponents, could be on its way to a dinner plate near you.

It would be an historic event - the first genetically engineered animal that could be sold in the grocery store.

Enviropig is actually in a race for that title with a fish - a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon that has DNA from a Chinook salmon and a pout fish. The result is a salmon that grows twice as fast as other farmed Atlantic salmon.

While genetically modified crops have raised little opposition in Canada, the possibility of a pig with genetic material from another species has sparked public protests and an intense debate that is splitting Ontario’s agricultural community.

In the farm community, the pig has the backing of Ontario Pork, a marketing agency that represents the province’s 2,000 pork producers. It has poured money into the Guelph research and owns the Enviropig trademark.

Ontario Pork argues that Enviropig, with its lower phosphorous pollution, could be of global importance.

“Meat from the pigs can be a source of protein for humans in countries that are overpopulated with little to no land available for farming, or waste for that matter,” the organization says on its website.

But others in the agriculture sector see danger in the Guelph university creation - for consumers and for their livelihood.

Sean Mcgivern is one who has been raising a red flag whenever he gets a chance.

Surveying a new-born litter of piglets in his century-old barn near the hamlet of Desboro in Grey County, Mcgivern points to what he sees as a major problem with Enviropig.

“From the outside, the Enviropig and the conventional pig look exactly the same. There are no identification factors that you can use to distinguish them.

“To the human eye they look exactly the same. It is only under the microscope that the differences would be seen,” McGivern says.

If Enviropig is approved, despite safeguards, it could end up contaminating other pigs and that could mean lost export markets, McGivern argues.

“There will be no way of controlling it.”

“We are all going to be painted with the brush that Canadian pigs are genetically modified,” says Mcgivern, who farms about 1,000 acres and has his own organic food retail store.

A co-ordinator for the National Farmers Union, Mcgivern points to a blunder at the University of Guelph.

Despite a prohibition on the genetically modified pigs entering the system, dead Enviropigs were accidentally shipped to a rendering facility.

“We feel if people like the University of Guelph, with all the capabilities they have, are unable to segregate the dead and rendered pigs properly, then what’s the average farm operation going to be able to do?” Mcgivern asks.

Then there are the health questions.

“There are no long-term trials or data or research to support any of the genetically modified food products,” Mcgivern says.

As for the claim Enviropig is better for the environment, he says if farmers properly handle the pig manure, it isn’t a threat to streams and lakes.

Mcgivern has taken his concerns to Ontario Pork and the University of Guelph.

“We’ve called on the University of Guelph and Ontario Pork to shut the Enviropig project down,” he says.

Enviropig is also on the enemy list of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of 18 groups that includes the Council of Canadians, Greenpeace Canada, USC Canada and Canadian Organic Growers.

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the network, says a major problem with the genetic engineering research is the secrecy.

“It is still a big open question - how safe is genetically engineered food - because in Canada all the regulation is secret, all of the science behind genetically engineered foods is corporate data that no one ever sees.

— — —

THE DEBATE

Supporters of genetic engineering hold it up as an environmentally friendly route to food security in an increasingly hungry world and argue that humans have modified crops for thousands of years.

Opponents paint it as an environmental and economic disaster in the making that will subject consumers to unknown health risks.

IT’S ALREADY HERE

Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, the reality is Canadian consumers would find it hard to avoid genetically engineered foods even if they wanted to.

Supermarket aisles are full of products with ingredients from genetically engineered crops. Soft drinks, cereals, syrup, cooking oil, and ice cream are just a few examples.

It’s estimated that in 2010 more than 90% of canola and 70% to 75% of corn and soybeans planted in Canada were grown from ­genetically engineered seeds.

More is on the way.

Biotechnology companies are working to add traits to crops that will make them drought resistant, or tolerant of salt, or tolerant of cold.

Other crops are being engineered as well, including rice, wheat, alfalfa, cotton, squash and potatoes.

 


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