Jan. 6, 2011 -- The pigs at the University of Guelph's swine research facility appear at first to be your run of the mill Yorkshires. They sound like Yorkshire pigs, act like them and snort like them.
Presumably they taste like them too, but nobody knows for sure just yet. These pigs, the Ontario-based scientists who created them claim, are genetically engineered wonders that could usher in a new era of farming technology. Or, depending on whom you ask, these frightening frankenswines represent science overstepping its bounds.
The "Enviropig," as it has been dubbed, has been created to be greener than your average swine. As with so much in life, the proof is in the pooping.
Like all animals, domesticated pigs require phosphorus to make DNA and build cell membranes. Unlike most other animals, feedlot pigs have great difficulty digesting the phosphorus they get from cereal grains. So the pigs end up passing most of the phosphorus they ingest through their manure and urine, creating that awful tell-tale smell.
This in itself wouldn't be too big of a problem, merely an olfactory nuisance. But farmers use the pig manure as fertilizer. And when it rains, the waste runs off into the watershed and eventually rivers and lakes. Herein lies the problem: phosphorus in the pig poop causes algae blooms to proliferate, sucking up oxygen and ultimately destroying habitats for fish and aquatic life.
Enter Cecil Forsberg, a molecular and cellular biologist at Canada's University of Guelph. "We thought it would be very useful if you could introduce one gene into the pig that could reduce this form of phosphorus. Having the pigs synthesize the enzyme is much more efficient in the long run."
So Forsberg and a team of researchers spliced a gene from the E. coli bacteria and a bit of mouse DNA into a normal pig embryo. The result: a Yorkshire pig that produces an enzyme in its salivary gland that can break down the otherwise-indigestible phosphorous. The "Enviropig's" manure contains 30 to 60 percent less phosphorous in it than its unmodified cousins.
"We have applications in to the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and into Canadian regulatory authorities with the objective of getting commercial approval for the pigs," says Forsberg.
In other words, it will be some time before an "Enviropig" lands on your plate, but the goal is to have the animal enter the food chain. No one has tasted it yet -- that would be illegal -- but Forsberg says every test he's run indicates that enviro-pork will taste identical to a regular Yorkshire's meat.
The Wrong Solution to the Problem?
Critics of the "Enviropig," however, fret that the thinking behind it is ethically murky at worst – ham-handed at best.
"Why change the pig when the problem is the management system?" asks Cathy Holtslander, a community organizer at the Saskatchewan-based Beyond Factory Farming. "It's not the pigs that cause the problem; it's the way confined animal feeding operations are set up."
The corn, soy and barley grain the feedlot pigs are given, Holtslander and other food activists argue, do not comprise the optimal diet for pigs. "The reason farmers use the feed is because it's cheap," she says. "So you have these pigs eating food that isn't appropriate for their digestive systems."
Farmers already supplement many of the grains they feed pigs with phytase, an enzyme that helps pigs break down the phosphorus. But researchers say obviating the need for those supplements with the genetically engineered 'Enviropig,' farmers stand to save about $1.75 per pig annually -- which adds up to big bacon on farms with thousands of animals.
But the economics leave Holtslander and her ilk unmoved. "There's no transparency in terms of any of the science around it," she complains. "It's not available to the public for any review to actually find out what's really involved. It's sort of the wrong approach to the problem."
The Food and Drug Administration would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an "Enviropig" application, but a spokeswoman told ABC News that no genetically engineered animal has been approved to date for eating.
Cloned meat has already gotten the agency's OK. But the closest anyone has come so far to genetically engineered meat is AquaBounty Technologies, whose fish are being studied by an FDA advisory committee composed of outside experts.
All of which suggests that the debate will likely simmer for a while. There will be some time yet -- if ever -- before this little piggy goes to market.