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Enviropig: the other white meat

Are consumers in the loop on their genetically modified food?

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Vancouver (CUP) – A genetically modified Yorkshire pig may soon be available in your grocery store. Cecil Forsberg, professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, has co-invented the Enviropig: an animal which, according to its website, has the “capability of digesting plant phosphorus more efficiently than conventional Yorkshire pigs.”

While genetically modified plants have been on the market since 1993, the genetic engineering of animals hasn’t yet been approved. But are genetically modified (GM) products, in particular animals, dangerous?
Lucy Sharratt, coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), says you should not only worry about what is in your food, but also the commercialization of GM foods.

“We need to look at the current reality of genetic engineering, and see that it comes from an agenda of corporate profits and not a public mandate or interest,” said Sharratt.

Forsberg, meanwhile, believes that “whereas everyone is getting ill from [regular] hamburger disease and bacterial infections,” GM foods have been shown in studies to be harmless to humans. According to Sharratt, if the Enviropig is approved, it would become the first genetically modified animal available for human consumption.

It raises the question of whether we can trust regulators to make the right decision for consumers and pork farmers. Sharratt believes that Health Canada is unable to make a non-biased opinion.

“There’s no labelling, democracy, or transparency on this issue for consumers,” said Sharratt. “All of the science behind the products on the shelf is corporate science, and [consumers] don’t have access to any of that science. It is corporately owned, and it’s kept confidential.”

Forsberg sympathizes with these complaints about the Canadian regulatory system. “It is quite true that it is confidential,” he said, “[but] that is something we cannot change.”

And while Forsberg also rebuked any criticism that suggested the University of Guelph was not following the rules set out by the Canadian government, he does wish to see the current system reformed.

“In the U.S., there is a comment period where people have access to the data,” said Forsberg, who is in favour of a more open process within the Canadian regulatory system. “We are not trying to hide anything – I think you can put a lot of trust in the regulatory agency in Canada.”

The Enviropig faces further concerns than just marketing. Even the labeling of GM foods has become a contentious issue. According to Forsberg, the problem with labeling foods from genetically modified plants is due to the inability to detect a difference from naturally occurring plants.

“There is just no way of tracing the oil from transgenic crops because they’re identical – so you can’t label them,” said Forsberg. However, when it comes to the Enviropig, he and Guelph University would welcome such labeling on their product.

“I would have nothing against labeling [Enviropig] as transgenic, because we would be delighted to see our Enviropig go out and have it labeled as Enviropig pork.”

Besides the political obstacles facing the labeling of GMO foods, Sharratt said there is a more pressing concern: safety. According to her, little to no independent research is currently being conducted on the safety of genetic engineering.

“There [are] very few independently funded, peer reviewed, scientific studies that look at specific health questions about genetically engineered foods,” she said.

Although University of British Columbia Botany professor emeritus Ian Taylor understands that the criticism levelled by Sharratt and others is important, he feels it is ultimately over-emphasized. Taylor believes that the media and other organizations should be suspicious of someone who proclaims, “it’s peer reviewed and therefore it is somehow magically truthful.”

He added that the peer review process only involves academics within their specific field verifying the specific research – but the research itself is rarely absolute and frequently altered by later studies.

Fears aside, what role would a product like the Enviropig assume in our society? According to Sharratt, the difference between genetically modified crops and animals and biotechnology advancements in medicine can be determined through their social use.

“The use of animal products in medicine is the introduction of a technology that has a social use,” said Sharratt. “The introduction of genetic engineering for food…is the introduction of genetic engineering that has no social use.”

Sharratt believes the push for genetically engineered animals is coming from small, rogue companies or university research departments that have no public mandate. In her view, this mandate has allowed universities to develop unnecessary scientific advancements for specific industries – in this case, the pork industry.

“This is why we see genetically engineered pigs from the University of Guelph,” she said.

The main contention between CBAN and Guelph on research ethics is the university’s combined use of public funding along with a grant from Ontario Pork (the Ontario hog producers association) for the sole purpose of creating a product that the university intends to sell commercially.

“Universities are taking public research and then they’re commercializing that research,” said Sharratt. “Universities have established [business] offices with the sole purpose of bringing university research into commercialization.”

This corporate business aspect is not lost on the University of Guelph. David Hobson, of Guelph’s Business Development Office, reiterated his office’s mandate with the Enviropig: “My current focus is to find an industry receptor that would like to take the project from its current state (research) and attempt to bring it to the market.”

Forsberg, meanwhile, said the allegations by CBAN lacked credibility. According to him, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, along with local governments have emphasized and encouraged universities to move toward commercialization of their research, in order to gain additional revenues and royalties.

“It’s a standard practice,” he said. “[Universities] cannot do research without receiving money from an organization. Our funding has come from contract funding from Ontario Pork. They don’t have any research arm themselves, so they contract out for their research and most of it is in universities.”

Taylor calls the symptom of this commercialization in university research “inventor syndrome.” He describes this as being when inventors, usually at the behest of their universities or employers, proclaim their invention to be universally good – or as he puts it: “I invented it, and therefore it’s used for the good of humanity, and therefore it’s good, because I said so.”

However, Taylor noted that we have to understand why universities are so defensive and organizations like CBAN are so critical.

“If you invented something,” said Taylor, “and you start to develop, put money into it – suddenly you become very biased. And equally, the response to bias…is another bias in the opposite direction, probably more extreme and less rational.”

If the Enviropig hits shelves, it would open the market for more research and more GMO products. So are genetically modified products safe? Does anyone know? Taylor doesn’t.

“They don’t tell us that sort of thing.”