Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Enviropig™ ... More Than Just a Cute Pig.

Cuter than Spiderpig, but scarier: wait till you hear about what they are and why they exist.

Courtesy of The Simpsons™
Researchers at the University of Guelph have created a genetically modified pig that excretes less phosphorous and, thanks to Environment Canada, have been allowed to reproduce and export it since February of this year. Now it's up to Health Canada to approve Enviropig™ for human consumption in this country - a scary thought.

Why is phosphorous bad?

Actually, phosphorous isn't bad. In fact, the phosphorous cycle is critical to plant growth and therefore, our survival. The problem is that excess phosphorous contaminates water: rivers and lakes with high phosphorous levels become overgrown with algae while other plants die off with too little sunlight and fish choke on too little oxygen. And if that weren't enough, it's also really unhealthy for animals (that includes us!) to drink.

How is all of this excess phosphorous ending up in the waterways?

This is a direct consequence of industrial hog production, otherwise known as the factory farming of pigs. It's exactly what the name implies: a big factory containing a large number of pigs, and often nothing else on the farm. Now, Mother Nature, left to her own devices, is one clever lady: she created pigs that excrete phosphorous so that their manure can be broken down by bacteria to release phosphorous back into the soil for plants to consume for growth. The cycle is complete. (By the way, if you're wondering why I'm not citing any sources, it's because I'm the source. Yesterday I wrote the first midterm for a course on sustainable development I'm taking this fall, so I've got cred!)

Enter human greed: the desire to make more money by cramming way too many pigs in way too small a space with way too little soil and plants in the surrounding area (not that there isn't land surrounding the farm, just that there couldn't possibly be enough of it compared to the size of the factory). Take Mother Nature's cycle, but add too much phosphorous, using the equation "too many pigs = too much manure = too much phosphorous", and what do you get? Factory farm run-off of pollutants into waterways.

Enviropig™ solves the problem of too much phosphorous - isn't that good enough?

No! I don't want the story of genetic modification to turn into the story of cigarettes, where we find out it's horribly bad decades after it's introduced to the market. How can we even determine the long-term health effects of GMOs when the companies who create GM seeds prohibit independent research on them? In other words, the reports we hear about are the ones funded by Big Agri-Business, and any proof that GMOs are harmful never sees the light of day. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but shouldn't we be "better safe than sorry" when it comes to our health?

What if genetic modification were absolutely safe?

Enviropig™ would still be wrong, simply because factory farming is wrong, and the associated problems can be solved in much easier and cheaper ways!

  • raise fewer pigs in one place, or raise fewer pigs, period: we produce much more than we consume (yet hunger remains a big issue across the country) so could easily tolerate smaller livestock operations while simultaneously supporting family farms rather than their corporate counterparts
  • feed pigs what they were meant to eat: a little bit of everything rather than a small variety of grains (typically corn and soybeans), which they can't fully digest and directly causes excess phosphorous in their manure
  • spread the manure over much larger areas on the surrounding farmland (which is often used to grow the grain fed to pigs), rather than storing it in pits; this also reduces the amount of synthetic fertilizer used on crops, further reducing the likelihood of pollution run-off into waterways

When I claim these methods would cost less than raising
Enviropig™, I'm including potential fees charged per pig, which is what Big Agri-Business does with its GM seed, the instability of foreign markets which have previously closed due to swine flu (most of the pork Canada produces leaves the country, by the way, in a desperate attempt to keep the industry afloat), and the big unknown - whether those markets are even interested in Enviropig™ at all.

For more information, check out the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

If, like me, you're feeling a little powerless about all of this (after all, when has writing to the Minister of Health ever influenced legislation?) and want to take proactive steps, I encourage you to talk to your butcher, ask where your meat comes from, and refuse it if it comes from a factory farm. Vote with your wallet!


  1. There's got to be a balance, where the animals are fed a good healthy diet, have some mobility and space for activity, kept healthy (with medicines that will not affect their flesh so that human consumption afterward still meets standards).
    A happy medium between how animals are bred today, and organic. Just because a meat is organic does not necessarily mean it is better for the environment though better for human bellies.

  2. You're right, organic meat is better for our consumption but not always better for the environment. Cows, for example, are fed corn instead of grass, so for beef to be organic, the corn must be organic. Not a problem until you factor in the vast amounts of corn required to feed just one cow, then multiply that by the size of the beef industry. Growing organic works best on a small scale. Ramp it up to an industrial production method and it becomes much harder to sustain. I, personally, would choose non-organic beef from cows who grazed on a pasture over organic corn-fed "indoor" beef.