Bring on Enviropig?: Can Genetic Engineering Make Meat a More Sustainable Food?

pig-fat-dieselyuck1Food safety advocates may shudder at the thought, but a team of scientists in Canada have come up with a new breed of pig that is intended to make meat a greener, more sustainable food. The Enviropig is engineered to have the same meat quality as your typically breeded Yorkshire pig, with all the ideal protein and fat content developed for the market. But in addition, it is also engineered to produce less toxic manure that releases fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, thereby making it a more environmentally sustainable option for large scale pig farmers.

Meat production, and more specifically, factory scale meat production exemplified by the ever present concentrated animal feedlot operation model, takes a toll on the environment. The huge amount of waste produced by a huge number of livestock adds up to lots of methane and other gases that are released into the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change. While there are much more sustainable ways to raise livestock, most of the meat on the market today comes from these giant factory farms that are really damaging their immediate and not so immediate environments.

Although Enviropig sounds like a good thing for the environment, it brings up all kinds of controversial issues that we find ourselves increasingly bumping into. Agricultural and food scientists are pushing further and further into the realm of genetically modified plants and animals to meet our immediate and future food demands and grapple with environmental concerns. But  advocates for organic, sustainable agriculture and food safety folks alike remain very skeptical in the face of all these new ground-breaking developments, and rightfully so. While the first Enivropig was developed way back in 1999, the pork from the pigs still hasn't been tasted because it hasn't been made legal for consumption. But the pig is under review by the FDA to determine whether or not its deemed fit to eat. And although the Center for Food Safety still sides vehemently with organic, sustainable agriculture, and change of practice over change of genetics, the FDA's recent indecision on genetically-modified salmon is somewhat foreshadowing. The fact that the FDA is putting genetically modified meats on hold is a good thing, and buys more time for food safety organizations and organic farmers to garner support and public backing. But it's also troublesome, because in the next decades the FDA will no doubt continue to be bombarded by genetically modified foods, and if they don't make a solid benchmark decision now, what will happen in the future? Even as FDA decisions rest uneasily at a standstill, pig farmers and pork processors as far as China are investing in Enviropig and planning for its future as a genetically modified animal sold as food. Enviropig and its counterparts in other livestock and animal groups spell trouble for sustainable food. Sure, it may be more environmentally sustainable for CAFOs to use such altered pigs, but why not find other, more organic ways to make our food and agriculture system for sustainable? We should be seeking alternatives to CAFOs, not encouraging their continuation as a cornerstone of our food system. And who knows what the unnatural consequences of relying on genetically modified foods could be for our health and the health of our global agricultural structure. This is big stuff, this is scary stuff. Dear FDA, proceed with caution! Dear consumers, demand safe and sustainable food!

photo credit: keetsa

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