Death knell may sound for Canada’s GMO pigs

Without fresh funding, the animals will be euthanized 
and their genetic material put into cold storage

Pigs that might have become the world’s first genetically modified animals approved for human consumption may instead face an untimely end, as key backers of Canada’s “Enviropig” project withdrew their support for the controversial engineered animal.

Scientists at the University of Guelph, 90 km west of Toronto, bred the first GMO pig that was developed to address an environmental problem in 1999. The animal — known as Enviropig — digests its feed more efficiently than naturally bred pigs, resulting in waste that may cause less environmental damage to lakes and rivers.

The project has produced eight generations of Enviropigs, including the current herd of 16 animals. But they may be the last of their kind, after Ontario Pork — an association of hog farmers in the eastern Canadian province — yanked their funding last month.

“We think we took the genetic research as far as it could possibly go,” said Keith Robbins, spokesman for Ontario Pork, which funded Enviropig with more than $1 million (since the late 1990s). “It’s probably best for industry to take it forward. When you’re the first of anything, it’s tough to get it out of the gate.”

Genetically modified plants and animals intended for the food chain face tough scrutiny from regulators, with some consumers leery of unproven long-term health effects.

“All biotech products face a daunting task of getting to market,” said Peter Phillips, a professor of public policy at University of Saskatchewan.

Enviropig has not managed to attract funding from a food company that would ultimately seek to commercialize the pigs, possibly because environmental benefit doesn’t necessarily translate into more profit, Phillips said.

Enviropig’s researchers applied several years ago for approval for human food consumption from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada. Those regulators have not made a decision.

Unless the university finds a fresh source of major funding it will euthanize the animals and place their genetic material in cold storage, said Lori Bona Hunt, a spokeswoman for the University of Guelph.

Research could continue without live animals, mainly through analyzing data, she said.

Canadian environmental groups welcomed the setback for the Enviropig.

“The GM pig was going to drive consumers away from eating pork if it was ever approved for market,” said Paul Slomp of the National Farmers Union, in a statement. “This GM pig fiasco could have permanently damaged (Canada’s) domestic and international pork markets.”

Canada is the third-largest pork exporter.

The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) staged a news conference on Parliament Hill to demand the federal government close the door to any future introduction of other genetically modified animals.

Its target wasn’t so much the pigs, which were never approved as a food source, but the prospect of modified salmon developed by Aqua Bounty of Prince Edward Island, with an extra gene designed to help it grow twice as fast. The only other GM animals in Canada are two elderly spider goats at the Agriculture Canada Museum on an experimental farm in Ottawa.

“There’s no demand or need for genetically modified food animals,” Lucy Sharratt of CBAN told the news conference. “The federal government should stop accepting requests to approve GM food animals. It’s time to end all attempts to bring GM animals to market.”

She said Health Canada won’t say whether it’s considering an application to approve the GM salmon for sale. Aqua Bounty has said it’s seeking American regulatory approval.

The two female spider goats, named Sugar and Spice, have been an attraction at the museum for about two years. They were genetically modified to create a silk substance in their milk that is extracted and spun into BioSteel, which is used in bulletproof vests and medical sutures.

The goats were originally created by Nexia Biotechnologies of Montreal, which went bankrupt. The museum purchased them three years ago to put on display for educational purposes and not to produce the spider silk.

“What we’re doing is presenting a piece of information and the visitor can make up his or her own mind about it,” said curator Franz Klingender.

The museum also said it will never breed the animals.

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