Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Enviropig Questions

The following questions were unable to be addressed during the Enviropig: Helpful or Harmful? event due to time constraints. All four panelists were emailed these questions, two responded.

Below are responses from Cecil Forsberg (University of Guelph, Enviropig creator) and Lucy Sharratt (Canadian Biotechnology Action Network Coordinator)

At this time of ecological and economic crisis, it is very clear that we cannot waste time developing unnecessary technologies when the real problems, root causes, remain unresolved. In the case of the Enviropig, the main issue is the obscenely heavy density in which the animals are raised in confinement on cheap grain. It is easy to see how so much manure spread on an insufficient land base would lead to prosperous leaching into water among the rest of a whole package of diseases and trouble for agriculture. This is just an example of one case where the root cause of the problem needs to be addressed instead of using a technological band aid. Right now we feel we can wait for years to debate on the safety of such technology when our soils are becoming degraded under our noses and we are driving our societies toward chaos and destruction by our unsustainable food production system. We have to start now, working on ecologically and community centred food production instead of wasting our time on band aids that are as ineffective as they are unproductive, dangerous and risky. I would please like a response from the panellists on this.

CWF: There are many avenues by which to tackle the important problem raised. Genetic modification of food animals is one option which could help solve part of the problem. Obviously you vigorously disagree with this approach. However, leaders in the fields of science and agriculture (and indirectly government, elected democratically), who incidentally have equal ethical and social concerns have provided financial support for this R&D. They seemingly have viewed this project from a different vantage point. Approaches to solving the waste problem that are the most successful presumably will dominate in the future.

LS: Large corporations are inclined to support technological band-aids rather than the real solution that requires systemic change. The root of the phosphorus pollution problem is easily identified and easily solved: the problem is the scale and practice of intensive hog production and the solution is changing this model of livestock production to create smaller, more geographically dispersed production. The University of Guelph owns the GE pig technology and therefore has a financial stake in seeking commercialization of the new technological band-aid of “Enviropig”. (There is already an older but effective techno-fix: a phytase supplement that can be added to hog feed.) Genetic engineering is continually being applied to create new crops and animals despite the existence of multiple, better solutions that are cheaper for farmers, less risky and less controversial. But the ultimate goal of genetic engineering is to sell new patented products on the marketplace. Because there is a great deal of money to be made from developing and commercializing technological band-aids, such band-aids or techno-fixes are continually being promoted as “solutions”. Unfortunately, the University of Guelph, like many universities across North America, is now in the business of commercializing its research and is therefore a part of fuelling the corporate technological treadmill that diverts resources away from the real solutions. The University now has an economic stake in selling a technological band-aid and this compromises the role of the university in seeking solutions to the root causes of our ecological and economic crises. The real solution can be immediately implemented in a partnership between farmers and consumers.

Would Labelling products as GM ease social discord? Without democratic processes for possible approval this would give consumers choice. Do you agree?

CWF: I have no problem with labelling.

LS: Labelling would not necessarily ease the social discord over GM but would change the way that the social conflict plays out by providing consumers with an effective tool to make a choice in the marketplace. Labelling GM products would put some power in the hands of consumers so that they can avoid buying GM foods and thereby also express their opinion about GM. This is exactly why the biotechnology industry is opposed to labelling.

Labelling provides consumers with a choice in the marketplace after all decisions about GM foods have already been made by our governments and does not therefore resolve the fundamental problem of lack of democracy in decision-making over genetic engineering. There has never been a national, public debate over genetic engineering. Labelling would not allow public participation in decision-making over the introduction of GMO nor give the public a voice in determining how public research funds are used.

If this Enviropig is a project to improve our environment, should we not look at the root of environmental problems? Growing monocrops of corn and soy are not sustainable, so instead of trying to prop up a failing system, should we not look at scaling down and feeding animals their natural diet and raised in a natural habitat?

CWF: I agree that mono-cropping with corn is mining the soil. Soybeans are different in that they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, but mono-cropping would still be a problem. However, crop rotation and no-till are becoming more common. Raising pigs on a so called natural diet probably would move us back to the 1800s if one were to eliminate cereal grains because pigs like other monogastrics do not perform well on a forage diet. Indeed at this extreme there probably would be no pigs in North America. But taking a less extreme view, the studies you have mentioned are under way. Changing peoples’ dietary habits (i.e. less meat more cereals will be a challenge.

LS: The intensive system transports grains (including genetically engineered corn and soy) from millions of acres of cropland to feed thousands of animals, and the excrement is then considered a waste since there is too much manure for the surrounding land to use productively. On smaller dispersed and mixed farm systems, however animal manure can provide needed fertility to the land in order produce crops including feed for hogs.

A shift to confined feeding of cattle occurred in the 1970s in the US in response to a market glut of grain. Instead of risking a drop in grain prices, a new market for grain was developed: the feedlot. Shortly thereafter the technique of confined chicken and egg production was developed which was then adapted to the system to hogs. (Intensive hog production plays a part in providing a market for feedgrains, however because grain can easily be imported from the US if/when it is cheaper, the intensive hog system does not actually result in higher feed prices for Canadian grain farmers.)

To the Scientists: the solution seems to be nutrition and population numbers. Why do you seek to mask the symptoms, not cure the problem? How will you apologize to the farmers when pork sales completely drop after introduction of this frankenpig?

CWF: As mentioned by Dr. Moccia, there are many ways to reduce the impact of food animals on the environment and the Enviropig is one approach. As stated at the debate the Enviropig will not be introduced under circumstances that would harm the sale of pork from conventional pigs.

If there were no intellectual property laws, would genetic engineering gene contamination be a problem? Why or why not?

CWF: Scientists tackle research problems with no potential for personal revenue gain. Intellectual property and invention laws were introduced to stimulate innovation. They are well recognized components that contribute to prosperous societies.

LS: Gene contamination is a problem for farmers and the environment even if there are no intellectual property laws attached. Gene contamination threatens the performance of contaminated plants or animals. It can result in unpredictable trait expression, as seen in the GE contamination of Mexican corn landraces, and, if contamination is too widespread, can thereby force farmers to abandon their saved seed/breed varieties.

Gene sequences that are patented by the University of Guelph remain the property of the University meaning that 1) the University or its licensees can choose to enforce its intellectual property, by suing farmers who have those gene sequences in their animals without authorization via purchase/contract, 2) any environmental contamination and related costs for farmers should be the responsibility of the University.

What are some of the potential affects to the food chain from the genetically changed Enviropig?

CWF: If the Enviropig is eventually introduced into commercial pork production the manure produced will have nitrogen to phosphorus ratio that is more suited to plant growth. Manure from conventional pigs has a higher concentration of phosphorus.

I do not see any substantive effect on the food chain.

LS: Health Canada is currently assessing the safety of the GE pig for human consumption but this process is kept secret: Health Canada is not conducting any of its own tests, it is merely reviewing the data supplied by the University. The University should release the data and details from its safety tests. These studies are not peer-reviewed but should be. The University’s claims of safety should be accessible and reviewed by independent scientists who do not have a financial stake in commercialization.

Segregation of GE and non-GE pigs in meat processing plants will be difficult, if not impossible. If GE pork and pork products are allowed onto the market, large meat processors like Maple Leaf will need to prohibit GE pigs from their processing facilities in order to eliminate the risk of contamination and subsequent loss of market share. Without such measures, and even with these measures, the food chain is at risk from contamination and consumers will lose trust in Canadian pork and pork products.

We know contamination can happen. Already, in 2002, eleven experimental GE “Enviropig” piglets contaminated the food system in Canada when the University of Guelph accidentally shipped dead experimental GE piglets to a rendering plant where they were processed into animal feed.

The change in Ontario from small family based farms to larger factory pig farming, is this economically driven or supply-demand driven?

CWF: The simple answer is that the change is driven by economics; small farms cannot produce pigs cheaply enough to remain profitable. Alternately it can be stated that there is a great opportunity to produce the number of pigs to exceed market supply causing the price to drop, and under these conditions only large scale operations are able to produce pigs cheap enough to remain marginally profitable.

LS: The change to larger hog production was driven by policy: the federal government wanted to expand hog production in Canada to increase exports and trade in pigs and pork. The food manufacturing industry in particular supported this expansion and lobbied for changes to the regulatory system in order to promote the production of higher quantities of hogs at lower prices, with more processor control over carcass characteristics and size. The strategy succeeded in driving most small-scale producers out of business by excluding them from the mainstream market. (However, it did not make the Canadian pork processing industry more successful because the border with the US opened up at the same time. The US pork industry was able to obtain Canadian raised hogs by offering a better price to producers, resulting in ongoing shortages of hogs at Canadian processing plants. At the same time, Canadian pork was often displaced by cheaper US meat in grocery stores.)

How will this project [Enviropig] address waste management issues present on large scale farms?

CWF: The Enviropig would help address the issue of high phosphorus in manure under current production conditions. Interestingly, in a free range system with no supplements it will enable pigs to have a more balanced diet because of the capacity to release phosphorus from phytate.

LS: The GE pig only aims to address the one specific waste management problem of phosphorous pollution and does not address other environmental problems created by excessive manure from large-scale hog operations. “Enviropig” does not cut down the volume of waste produced or associated pollution problems such as heavy metal content, salt content or odour issues, for example. The GE pig does not therefore solve the waste management issues of large-scale farms. Large operations can address these issues by taking such measures as reducing the number of pigs raised in one place, changing feed ingredients, trucking liquid manure longer distances, dry composting manure, and/or expanding the area of land for spreading manure. At present, the cost of responsible manure management is not recovered in the price of hogs and because such practices are not enforced by regulations, producers who choose to be better environmental stewards are at a competitive disadvantage in the industry.

Dr. Forsberg: Seeing in retrospect the pros and cons of the ‘green revolution’ how do you foresee the ‘pros’ and the ‘cons’ of the ‘gene revolution’? Is there enough foresight to allow this to go on?

CWF: With increased knowledge of the genomes of humans and animals the “gene revolution” will continue and indeed will occur at a greater pace. Based on current government policy genetic research will be supported wherever there appears to be an environmental/societal benefit by solving intractable problems. Some things you may not agree with, but overall I think society will make the final decision on whether they accept each individual technology.

Dr. Forsberg: You have lived though the ‘green revolution’ and are continuing to participate in the ‘gene revolution’. From your observations of how farming systems, ecosystems and ultimately our world has been negatively impacted (E.g. Net farm incomes below zero dollars, poisoned and deadened soils) by the green revolution, what makes it justifiable to continue along the same path? Can you foresee the negative consequences? Will we (students) spend our lives trying to reverse these trends?

CWF: I fully understand the question you have posed. Much of current farming practices in “developed countries” seem to be mining the soil and concentrated animal production interferes with the most appropriate distribution of farming practices. In contrast to this practice in China they have been cultivating the soil for thousands of year and maintained it. In that farming system more people lived on farms than in the city and there was hand labour instead of machinery. That wide distribution of people and limited use of resources reduced or prevented many of the current problems that we see today where most people live in cities. Can you see yourself living in that type of a rural environment? I agree we have many issues to tackle to maintain society in environmental equilibrium.

Lucy Sharratt: Why is control of phosphorus output an economic issue? Doesn’t the gene in Enviropig stop/reduce phosphorus output and thus help get rid of phosphorus pollution?

LS: Phosphorus pollution is an environmental problem but it is viewed by intensive livestock operations as an economic problem because of the costs involved in waste management. For intensive hog production operations waste management is a cost of business and until governments regulate phosphorous pollution, factory farms generally do not even take steps to reduce phosphorous (these steps cost money). So from the perspective of factory farms, phosphorous output is an economic issue, not an environmental one. “Enviropig” fits into this economic perspective. “Enviropig” is explicitly designed to reduce the amount of phosphorous coming from the pigs themselves, so that factory farms do not have to pay for other measures such as reducing the number of pigs they raise in one place, changing feed ingredients, trucking liquid manure longer distances, dry composting manure, or expanding the area of land for spreading manure. As the “Enviropig” researchers say: “If there was a dramatic increase in the stringency of nutrient management guidelines, raising these pigs would allow the producer to maintain his operation without a decrease in the number of pigs permitted per unit of land.” (“Transgenic Approaches to Enhance the Environmental and Physiological Characteristics of Pigs and Their Impact on the Pork Industry” C.W. Forsberg, S.P. Golovan, J.P. Phillips, A. Ajakaiye, M. Fan and R.R. Hacker, Proceedings of the 2003 Manitoba Swine Seminar Country. January 1, 2003.)

If existing phytase supplements decrease phosphorus in manure by 20-50 percent, compare that to the phytase enzyme produced by the Enviropig?

CWF: We have data to show that Enviropig is better than the current recommendations for phytase addition to feeds, and there is no need to add anything to the feed!

LS: Phytase supplements can be easily added to hog feed and do not involve the controversy and risk of genetically engineering the pig itself. From their research, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture says that “adding phytase does not appear to add more cost to the diet…Using phytase, replacing protein with synthetic amino acids, and by feeding more closely to the animal's requirements, nitrogen and phosphorus excretion in pig manure can be reduced by up to 50%.” University of Guelph researchers agree with this assessment: The most widely practiced strategy

is to supplement feed with phytase, an enzyme that releases phosphate from phytate. This practice has led to reductions in fecal phosphorus reportedly as high as 56%.” (“Pigs expressing salivary phytase produce low-phosphorus manure”

Serguei P. Golovan, Roy G. Meidinger, Ayodele Ajakaiye, Michael Cottrill, Miles Z. Wiederkehr, David J. Barney, Claire Plante, John W. Pollard, Ming Z. Fan, M. Anthony Hayes, Jesper Laursen, J. Peter Hjorth, Roger R. Hacker, John P. Phillips, and Cecil W. Forsberg, 2001 Nature.)

The University of Guelph website says:Once the food is swallowed, the phytase enzyme is active in the acidic environment of the stomach, degrading indigestible phytate in the feed that accounts for 50 to 75% of the grain phosphorus.” (http://www.uoguelph.ca/enviropig/) Researchers say that the GE “Enviropig” excrement will be “usually containing 60% less phosphorous than nontransgenic pigs fed the same conventional diet lacking supplemental phosphate.” (“The Enviropig physiology, performance, and contribution to nutrient management” C. W. Forsberg, J. P. Phillips, S. P. Golovan, M. Z. Fan, R. G. Meidinger, A. Ajakaiye, D. Hilborn and R. R. Hacker, J Anim Sci 2003. 81:E68-77.)

Enviropig Team: Would you be willing to eat Enviropig from 10 years before releasing the product to consumers? What better way to ease your target market?

CWF: We have done testing that provides evidence to document that Enviropig pork is equivalent to that of ordinary pigs and I would not hesitate to eat it. The way legislation is set up in both Canada and the United States we legally cannot eat the Enviropig until we have regulatory approval.

Richard: Would you and your organization be advocating for proper labelling of GM pork for consumers in Canada?

Richard: Would you and your organization be advocating for proper labelling of GM pork for consumers in Canada and the world if the Enviropig hits the market?

Do you feed your families GM foods?

CWF: Yes we eat genetically modified cereal grain products that are sold in the supermarket. Incidentally there are no reports of people getting ill from the consumption of any genetically modified plant food products.

Are you sponsored by Monsanto?

CWF: No.

Will you be getting a financial payoff if the Enviropig is accepted for the market?

CWF: The University of Guelph like all other Universities and Federal research institutes has an invention policy on the remuneration of inventors if intellectual property they have developed is commercialized.

Dr. Forsberg: If the active enzyme in Enviropig occurs naturally can that enzyme be encouraged though better raising of the pig?

CWF: The bacterium Escherichia coli (from which the phytase gene was cloned) is present in the lower gut of the pig. The E. coli phytase presumably degrades phytate releasing phosphate that is digestible, but there is no absorption from the lower gut (cecum and colon), therefore the enzyme present in the bacteria is of no direct value to the pig. The absorptive section of the gastrointestinal tract is the small intestine which precedes the cecum and colon.

I’ve heard that from an agricultural standpoint, we have reached or passed peak phosphorus. If so, should we not relocate and better manage pig manure instead of altering it genetically?

CWF: Good point! Pig manure contains a higher concentration of phosphorus than nitrogen in relation to the proportions most suitable for plant growth. The manure from Enviropigs has a lower concentration of phosphorus without affecting the amount of nitrogen in the manure. This results in manure with the proportions of N and P more suited for plants. Therefore the manure is better suited for spreading on land for plant growth with no build-up of phosphorus from manure.

Why should be pour a decade of money, time, animal use into researching this when eating animal flesh isn’t even a necessary part of a healthy diet?

CWF: You know the answer to this question already. Most people enjoy meat as part of their diet. It is well documented that as people become wealthier they usually consume more meat (to a degree). The challenge is how to design a nutritionally balanced plant protein products that most people would prefer to consume instead of meat.

LS: While a vegetarian or vegan diet is a healthy and desirable choice for many people, the majority of Canadians include some meat in their diets. (Statistics Canada has found that Canadians have been reducing the quantity of meat, particularly pork, that they eat.) It is therefore important to ensure that animals are raised in a sustainable and ethical fashion. There are many dimensions of animal welfare and ecological health that can be achieved by raising livestock on smaller mixed farms. Additional benefits of reduced fossil fuel dependence and increased biodiversity are also gained. If fair prices are paid for meat produced in this way more people could earn a living and diverse, vibrant rural communities could be maintained. In order to achieve these goals for livestock production and healthy meat, it is necessary for consumers to pay higher prices for meat (which may also result in the consumption of smaller quantities of meat).

How will this project affect the lives of the animals on these [factory?] farms?

CWF: I presume the effect would be neutral.

LS: Enviropig has been developed for factory farms. This project does nothing to change production practices but will simply change the chemical composition of the manure produced. There is no animal welfare benefit. On the contrary, if “Enviropig” is approved, it could lead to more genetic engineering of animals with its many animal welfare questions including the production of animals with unintended, potentially painful characteristics.

How would Enviropig affect pork exports to the EU, where GM labelling is required and Canada has no such requirements?

CWF: Good question. In the USA there apparently will not be labelling of transgenic animal meat if it was determined to be no different from ordinary animal meat. Therefore there will the potential for the shipment of transgenic meat from the USA to other countries.

This is a hypothetical question and I do not have an answer, but I am sure a solution will be found before any transgenic animal products are for sale in either the United States or Canada.

LS: Clearly, Canada’s export markets would reject GE hogs, pork and pork products. It is likely that companies in countries that reject or have not yet approved GE pigs will avoid importing pork and pork products from Canada in order to protect themselves from consumer mistrust/controversy and from possible costly contamination incidents that result in recalling products. There is mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods in Europe and in 39 other countries include other major pork export markets. Countries must first approve GE pigs for human consumption before they allow import of GE pork and pork products but Canada would still be obliged by those countries to label any GE products being exported. Canada exports approximately half of our pork and pork products, to over 100 countries. Japan and the USA are two of Canada's most important export markets for pork.