Relax I am told, it is just a bit of DNA and not species specific, putting mouse DNA into a pig won't affect it at all. Why then are researchers trying to bring a little piggy to market with mouse DNA spliced into the beast? The answer is simple and readily answered by people behind it, because the mouse DNA, when combined with E. coli, allows for the pig to process phosphorous in a way that the pig currently cannot.
To bring everyone up to speed on what I am going on about here, allow me to present Enviropig, an invention of the University of Guelph in Canada. The scientists behind Enviropig have been working on this animal for 11 years, trying to find a way to reduce the phosphorous output of swine herds raised through intensive livestock operations or factory farming. Professor Stephen Liss tells me that phosphorous run off can be a problem on farms, if the run off hits water supplies be it in streams or wells, the water can become contaminated, algae growth can overtake the water. The solution, Enviropig which can reduce phosphorous output by as much as 70%.
But this is not just about solving an environmental problem, the goal is to market this animal for human consumption and currently there are applications before the United States Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada, asking the regulatory bodies to approve the "transgenic" animal for the dinner plate. I'm not sure.
I am the type of person who will eat haggis and recently regaled readers elsewhere with my consumption of seal meat pate during a public relations stunt for Canada's beleaguered seal hunt, so I am an adventurous eater. But mouse pig?
A doctor friend of mine tells me that there are no concerns with biotechnology and I should get over any squeamishness. In reality I may have no choice, Canada currently has no requirement for labelling of genetically modified foods, the United States has a similar voluntary labelling system. What this means is that if Enviropig is approved for human consumption, it could be sitting right next to other pork products from "regular" pigs and I will have no clue as I look down at the meat counter. In the end, pork could become like canola where the overwhelming majority of the plant now grown is genetically modified.
Professor Liss assured me in an interview earlier this week that there is no taste difference between regular pigs and his laboratory project, yet also says that despite 11 years of research, no one has tasted the meat. His assurance is based on chemical testing showing a match with Yorkshire pigs, the breed from which Enviropig is derived. Fine, if it is all the same, will the professor eat the pig? That question was put to Mr. Liss by radio colleague Stephanie Sabourin, "Well, if it was after the regulatory approval process and so forth that I would have the option and choice to do that and I would make my choice accordingly. But there would be, certainly, full confidence in the safety of the product."
Not exactly a resounding yes but in his answer we see the sleight of hand, Professor Liss says he would have "the option and choice" but to most consumers in North America, that choice is currently denied and likely will be when this pig is brought to market.
Those of you follow kosher or halal diets can't sit there too smugly, swine are not the only animal being altered. The Discovery Channel has a list of 10 transgenic animals that include a goat that produces spider's silk through its milk and a chicken that they hope can produce life saving drugs in its eggs. A new animal they missed is the fish with the six-pack abs.
Researchers at the University of Rhode Island have developed a rainbow trout that looks like it has the abdominal muscles of a fitness magazine cover model, the result of combining elements from Belgian blue cattle with the fish. The researchers say the goal is produce a farmed fish with more fillet on its bones while still using the same amount of feed.
It is all very interesting and futuristic and many people will jump on board with it, like my doctor, family members and several members of parliament that I have spoken with over the last several days. Their assurances have done nothing to convince me that allowing these strains of animals to be approved for widespread production and consumption is a good thing. We have millennia of dealing with pigs and fish and while yes, there has been crossbreeding, it has always been crossbreeding of the same species. I have never heard of a farmer successfully convincing a mouse to mount a barnyard pig. There is also that nagging reminder that experts once concluded it safe to feed cattle the remains of other cows, a move that ended with mad cow disease, the culling of herds and hundreds of people dead.
Is that a tad too much fear mongering for you? Perhaps my reservations are based in fear, yet surely in a day and age when we are requiring the labelling of food down to minutia, passing bans of salty snacks and sugary drinks in schools and pushing for an overall healthier diet, the public deserves to know if the fish they are frying up has a cousin about to meet the grill in a Brussels steakhouse.
Brian Lilley is a political journalist and the Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations Newstalk 1010 Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also the Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.