Patenting Porky

Monsanto goes the whole hog

Patenting Porky

Monsanto is trying to patent the pig. In early 2005 the biotech giant filed an application with the World Intellectual Property Organization to patent pigs displaying specific genetic traits. They claim to have not just improved, but actually invented pig genes–entire pigs, pig litters, pig populations. In other words, they’ve gone the whole hog.

In the language of the patent, Monsanto is laying claim to porcines “at both the individual animal and herd levels” that possess “one or more desirable traits” or that, conversely, have had “particular undesirable traits or genes” eliminated. Any pig showing the characteristics outlined in the patent claims would be the property of Monsanto, which has successfully defended similar patents for its genetically engineered (GE) canola, corn, and soy products.

Mapping Miss Piggy

Monsanto Choice Genetics™, a division of Monsanto, was the first to complete a physical map of the pig genome (the genetic material of a living organism) in January 2001. This was the first genome map completed for any livestock species. Monsanto is eager to play corporate catch-up with the lead player in the US pork industry, Pig Improvement Company (PIC), a subsidiary of British biotech firm Sygen International, which controls an estimated 40 percent of US market share. Monsanto currently holds about 10 percent of the US swine production market. Ron Schinnour, general manager of Monsanto Choice Genetics™, was quoted as saying “We’d like to build a business like theirs.”

Greenpeace and the Organic Consumers Association, on the other hand, are concerned that once Monsanto holds a patent on pig populations they can sue farmers whose pigs display the same characteristics outlined in the patent claims. Monsanto has, after all, successfully sued farmers, such as Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, for allowing Monsanto canola seeds to grow on his land, even though the seeds accidentally blew onto his fields. Monsanto’s aggressive stance on protecting its patent seems to make it oblivious to the real possibility of cross-pollination by insects, wind, or rain.

What would happen if a genetically modified pig was accidentally bred with an ordinary pig? Who would own the piglets? Would royalties have to be paid to Monsanto? If you think it would be impossible for GE pigs to escape from their closely-guarded labs, read on.

A Pig in a Poke

So far, no transgenic animals have been approved for human or animal consumption in Canada, although they are increasingly used in laboratory and field tests. The carcasses of these animals are supposed to be disposed of by incineration or composting. However, in 2002, and again in 2004, genetically engineered pigs from biotech labs in Ontario and Quebec were inadvertently rendered into animal feed. Whether the meat from animals fed the GE pigs reached consumers is “unclear,” according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). In the US, hundreds of transgenic pigs have accidentally entered the human food supply, some as food for other factory-farmed animals, others more directly–as sausages.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Canada are monitored by the CFIA and Environment Canada. The CFIA assesses the safety of genetically altered foods and products derived from biotechnology, including plants and animals.

However, there is no system in Canada that allows consumers to determine whether foods have been genetically engineered or whether food products contain GE ingredients; there is no mandatory labelling of GE foods, making them something of a pig in a poke. Food growers and manufacturers are governed only by the Canadian Standard for Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering–which, clearly, is entirely voluntary and, therefore, unenforceable.

An estimated 60 percent of processed foods sold in Canada and the US contain genetically engineered materials–amounting to almost 30,000 food products. Foods that are genetically engineered now include canola oil, soybean products, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and, in the US, dairy products containing Monsanto’s rBGH, a growth hormone injected into some dairy cattle. (rBGH has been banned by Health Canada.) These can also be “hidden” in food products, for example as cornstarch made from GE corn or lecithin derived from soybeans.

Many more GE foods are on the brink of being approved and marketed. Farmed Atlantic salmon have been genetically engineered to grow faster than their wild counterparts. Chickens are being developed containing genes that make them resistant to viral diseases, able to grow faster, lay more eggs, and produce less body fat. Merck, better known as a pharmaceutical corporation, has produced the MacroChicken, a bigger bird engineered with bovine growth hormones.

Makin’ Bacon

Scientists are just as creative with GE pigs as they’ve been with fish, chicken, and dairy cattle. The EnviroPig™, produced at the University of Guelph, is being marketed as an environmentally friendly product. An unpleasant side-effect of factory-farmed pigs is the enormous amount of pig manure, rich in phosphates, which must be disposed of. When these phosphates leach into water supplies, fish stocks can be damaged, even wiped out. The EnviroPigs™ have been genetically engineered, using E. coli and mouse genes, to produce up to 60 percent less phosphate in their waste.

The Guelph researchers assure consumers that “pork from these animals will be safe when it is approved,” although it is unknown what affect the bacteria and mouse genes spliced into the pigs will have on humans. Moreover, these are the same researchers who accidentally released 11 enviropiglets to a rendering plant for livestock feed in 2002.

Other reported transgenic pig projects, currently under development at Monsanto, involve using the gene IGF-1 (associated with cancer risk in humans) to enhance porcine muscle growth, and recombinant growth hormone (which has caused heart abnormalities in the pigs) to increase overall growth. The Pig Improvement Company is genetically engineering pigs to reproduce more prolifically, resist disease, and carry less backfat.

Pigs with Wings?

It’s entirely possible. Whether it’s tomatoes with fish genes, corn with bacteria genes, or pigs with mouse genes, genetic engineering raises human health, environmental, and
ethical concerns. A number of scientific, consumer advocacy, and animal welfare groups have issued warnings about the inherent and often unknown risks of genetically modifying life.

Canadian geneticist and environmental activist David Suzuki has spoken out against corporate genetic engineering. While a form of genetic modification through same-species breeding has been practised by farmers for millennia (known as vertical inheritance), biotechnology is now allowing us to transfer genes from species to species (horizontal inheritance), with unpredictable and sometimes unintended consequences. For example, salmon genetically engineered with growth hormone unexpectedly turned green, while petunias that had the gene for the colour red spliced into them showed decreased fertility and growth.

Among other possible unintended consequences are those outlined by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), in its position paper on Genetically Engineered Organisms and the Environment. The ESA expresses concerns that transgenic organisms (like faster-growing GE salmon) could spread and disrupt wild populations, leading to a loss of biological diversity. Plants bred to be resistant to herbicides (like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products) could spread their herbicide-resistant traits to weeds through cross-pollination, creating super-weeds requiring ever stronger, more toxic herbicides. It will be impossible to recall such GE life forms back to their labs once they have been released, and the crops of both organic and nonorganic farmers will be–and have been–altered forever.

The Organic Consumers Association has issued a statement calling for a global moratorium on genetically engineered foods; they cite studies showing the toxicity of some GE foods to humans and animals; increased cancer risk from consumption of GE foods such as rBGH dairy products; serious food allergies to hidden GE ingredients; potential increased antibiotic resistance in those who consume GE foods; and damage to beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms exposed to GE crops.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Council for Responsible Genetics have issued warnings about the potential environmental and human health risks of genetic engineering, including the creation of new and especially virulent viruses. Both Andrew Weil, integrated-medicine practitioner, and Barry Commoner, a founder of the modern environmental movement, have spoken out about the faulty science guiding genetic engineering. Many animal rights groups have raised ethical concerns about the grisly and casually cruel ways laboratory animals, such as transgenic pigs bred for human organ donation, are treated.

No More Hogwash

Proponents of genetic engineering say it promises to improve our food resources, clean up the environment, even end world hunger. But each of these chimerical marketing claims has been knocked down as the illusion it is. Mutating and patenting life doesn’t improve the lives and health of farmers, consumers, or the animal species with whom we share a majority of our genes.

Rather, as consumers, we can support better farming practices by buying organically raised beef, sheep, and pigs (which cannot be fed GMOs or undergo engineering), wild fish, and organic produce. Communities in Canada, the US, Asia, and Europe have declared themselves “GE-Free” (see www.canadians.org). Make your town the next GE-Free Zone in Canada. Wilbur and Babe will thank you.

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