Thursday, October 30, 2008

This Little Piggy Went to Market (or Not?)

We're pleased to have a guest post today by Jonathan Javitt, author of Capitol Reflections, who wrote this for the Women's Bioethics Blog:

Imagine a cleaner pig. Thanks to researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, you don't have to imagine – they've engineered them. It has nothing to do with their appearance – the look just like any other pig – but the difference can be found in their genetic makeup, specifically in their “cleaner” manure.

Your typical pig doesn't have the capacity to break down phytate - found in much of the food that pigs eat – thus going undigested, ending up in their manure and subsequently, in other places as well. It can get into the water supply, leading to algae growth, and it can get into the air – especially when a large number of pigs live together on ranches. In short it can cause real environmental problems.

In hopes of ending these problems, study leader Cecil Forsberg and colleagues genetically engineered pigs, dubbed Enviropigs, that can digest more phosphorus.

So how is it done? According to the study, “by introducing a bacterial gene for the enzyme phytase into Enviropigs’ genome, the pigs secrete the enzyme in their saliva and expel up to 60 percent less phosphorus in their manure than their non-transgenic counterparts.” These cleaner, environmentally-friendly pigs are just one genetically engineered animal living in experimental labs in North America. Others include fast-growing salmon, disease-resistant cows, and goats that produce antibacterial milk. All of them, right now, are awaiting FDA approval.

In my novel, Capitol Reflections, I talk about the complexities of FDA approval for modified foods – or animals – and the problems that arise because sometimes there aren't enough checks and balances in place (since genetically modified foods is based on relatively new science.) Those opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMO) worry that there isn’t enough information about them yet to safely bring them to market.

It's easy to see both sides of the argument. Items that are genetically modified typically serve a purpose for the “greater good” - faster growing grains for countries afflicted with famine, fish that would help end over-fishing, and of course, pigs that don't pollute – but is that a reason to give them fast track approval and open them up for consumption? Do people really know what could unfold if this type of technology is mismanaged or mis-applied?

With a heated political season upon us, it's interesting to consider the role of policies and politicians in the GMO debate.

Jonathan Javitt ( is the author of Capitol Reflections and a Washington insider, physician and scientist who has served as a senior White House health advisor in the past three presidential administrations. His book is available on at this link.

1 comment:

SabrinaW said...

Hi! I am greatly interested in bioethical issues related to food and agriculture. Your book looks great - I will be sure to check it out.

While I see the potential benefits from this modification, it makes me wonder if there is a simpler solution. As the joke goes:

Patient: "Doc, my head hurts when I hit it against the wall."

Doctor: "Stop hitting it against the wall."

Maybe reassessing how we produce our food would yield greater benefits in the long term.