News 1279 views last update:6 Aug 2012

Project to produce GE pig with better phosphorous digestion loses funding

Ontario pork has decided to cease funding for the Enviropig research project at the University of Guelph, to produce a genetically engineered pig that is better able to digest the phosphorous and thus reducing it in manure.

What makes the Enviropiggy special is that it is bred using DNA material from mice and E. coli bacteria so that the pigs can digest the phosphorous in corn, barley and soybeans better.

By reducing the amount of phosphorus in their manure (up to 60% in tests) the pigs are more environmentally friendly. Phosphorus in farm animal manure is known to promote algae growth in waterways, leading to fish kills and other water problems. Currently, pig farmers either supplement their pig feed with enzymes that help the pigs break down the phosphorus in their feed that they can't digest. But those supplements add costs to the farmer.

The project seemed to be doing well. Just last year the university announced that the federal government had determined that the pigs were not toxic to the environment, giving the pigs a pass under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Which opened the door to allowing more Enviropigs to be produced under certain confinement and control measures.

But earlier this month, Ontario Pork decided to end its funding for Enviropig research. The group, which represents Ontario pig farmers, decided it was time to shift its research dollars to focus on such areas as efficient production methods and consumer research.

The aim of the project was to eventually sell the pigs to commercial farmers. But even the developers recognised that the pigs would be a bit of a hard sell. Surveys from Health Canada and others have found the vast majority of Canadians remain deeply suspicious of "biotech" and genetically modified food and concerned about the long-term risks.

The Enviropig was Canada's first attempt to genetically engineer a farm animal and has been under development for more than a decade, with $5 million already spent on the project. But since Ontario Pork was the biggest backer it's unclear what will happen next.

According to the university the project will continue, but with a reduced scope. Meaning breeding of the animals will stop and the current herd might be euthanized. But even then, lab research can continue using the project's banks of tissue and semen. The university is also exploring other options to find another commercial partner.

Submissions have been made to both the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada to determine if the pigs are fit for human and animal consumption. No decision have been issued from either agency. Those applications remain open.

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