Every so often, my darling husband leaves articles purposefully in my “zone” of the counter, the area where my unfinished soduku puzzles, to-be-signed permission slips, unclipped coupons, cryptic lists, and miscellaneous papers I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do-with reside. He generally avoids telling me I should read a particular article; he knows how overwhelmed I am as it is by all the things I “should” do. He just leaves articles strategically placed where I will happen upon them and counts on headlines like Inside the Enviropig or Call this genetically engineered fish what it is: Frankenfish to lure me in. (I know, I know, these titles truly compel you too!). So it is I happened upon two stories in the past week that were gleaned from hubby’s Popular Science and Business Week reading suggestions.
The first story is about the Enviropig. A nearby community is fending off an inevitable factory hog farm, so this one caught my eye. Most people know it’s not just the hogs that stink when it comes to raising pigs (in my opinion cows smell MUCH worse), it’s the pig poop and what to do with it. The run off is full of phosphorus which washes in to our water supply and eventually the ocean, creating “dead zones”. Wilson’s Pig Farm is just upstream from our lovely Deer Creek and I’ve wondered time and again how it affects our creek. Lucky for us, Wilson’s is a pretty small operation, focusing on quality Pork BBQ and not mass production.
The Enviropig was developed over the past decade by biologists in Ontario. They’ve created pigs that produce 30-65% less phosphorus than your regular run of the mill pig. Is this good? I don’t know. Apparently, pigs (like all animals) need phosphorus, but can’t get it from the grain in pig feed, so farmers supplement the feed with pure phosphate, most of which goes right through the pig because pigs can’t absorb it all (this is the same mentality my kids have as they eat popcorn – shove the largest possible amount in your mouth at one time and some of it is bound to make its way to your belly, nevermind the waste). Enviropigs don’t need this supplement because they have been genetically engineered to secrete phytase, which allows the pigs to get their phosphate from grains alone. Eureka!
But one has to ask – why is it we have to modify the pig to eat the grain, instead of the other way around? What were pigs designed to eat? Maybe that’s where we should start. I’m no pig expert, but I’m guessing by the structure of the average pig that they are supposed to eat things on the ground like grass and roots (and maybe those things have naturally occurring phosphorus in them?). Just thinking.
This wonderful new discovery means that farmers can switch to Enviropigs (most certainly patented and priced to reflect that) and skip on the supplements, which will save them some cash and allow them to price their pork higher, claiming it as environmentally friendly pork. It’s only a matter of time before we no longer have those phosphorus spewing natural pigs.
This next story is a fish story and as you would expect there are lots discrepancies depending on who’s telling the tale. According to AquaBounty Technologies their genetically modified salmon can reach its full size up to twice as fast as a naturally occurring salmon. I don’t have to spell out for you what that means to companies that grow and sell salmon or to AquaBounty, which would sell the AquaAdvantage eggs. There is money to be made, so passions are high. AquaBounty has petitioned the FDA for 15 years to approve this fish and finally is seems possible they will get their wish.
The technical details on the frankenfish are this: The modified salmon contain a growth gene implanted from another variety of salmon that’s activated by DNA from an eel-like creature called the ocean pout. Which begs the question – is it really salmon? AquaBounty assures us it is and that it will be indistinguishable from the natural variety. Hmmm. They claim production of this fish (all female fish by the way, so they can’t cross-produce with regular salmon or, I would assume, reproduce viable eggs without the help of AquaBounty thereby obliging the fish farmer to buy more eggs each year), would allow for more US production of salmon. Currently most salmon in the US is imported. AquaBounty eggs are produced in Canada and the fish are grown in Panama, so I’m not sure that’s a fer-sure, but it sounds nice to the Made-in-the-USA crowd.
The other folks telling this fish tale are led by none other than Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim, plus two Alaska senators (surprise, surprise). They point out that the FDA has reviewed AquaBounty’s request as a veterinary drug rather than creating a new review process for gene-altered foods. Good point. As Solheim pointed out, “Today it’s a fish that we’re talking about. But very soon it will be genetically engineered pigs, chicken, and our beloved cows.” Apparently he hasn’t been clued in to the Enviropig just yet.
The Enviropig and the Frankenfish highlight what is fast becoming a huge new enterprise for science and farming. There are ethical questions that deserve to be asked. Is it right or safe or in our best interest to modify nature to satisfy our own greed? I suppose it goes back to each person’s philosophy on creation. If you believe this world was created with a design of some kind (not saying what kind), then is it right to mess with that design? Or are we specifically designed so that we are able to mess with that design? Hmm. I have another take on the matter. I think we were designed with these amazing minds and beautiful souls and we should be able to figure out how to coexist without destroying another species. And maybe if we weren’t so hell-bent on saving a buck or making a buck, we would discover that we can survive on much less and live more simply. Just because we can modify a pig or a fish, doesn’t mean we should.