Headline Bioethics: Enviropig – significant advance or environmental ‘band-aid’?

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]

EnviropigMediumAuthor: Rebecca Hyde

Clip: ‘Enviropigs’: genetically modified for food consumption

Date of Story: 4 January 2011

Summary of story: For the past decade, researchers at the University of Guelph, Canada, has been developing a line of Yorkshire pigs now known as Enviropig. In January 2011, a BBC reporter had the opportunity to see the pigs in a research facility while applications to approve the Enviropig for human consumption were being deliberated by the US Food and Drug Administration. The Enviropig has been genetically modified to contain genes from Escherichia coli and mice and bred over several generations to become more environmentally friendly by reducing the toxicity of their waste.

Discussion of ethical issues: Development of the Enviropig raises a number of ethical questions. Some of these relate to issues of animal rights, some relate to genetic modification of organism in general and foods in particular. Given the reasons behind the investment in the Enviropig research, there are also specific issues relating to environmental ethics, and this represents a good place to begin evaluation.

Intensive pig farming produces large amounts of manure which contains high levels of phosphate. Whilst some phosphate is vital to life, and is necessary for good plant growth, high concentrations can lead to disruption and poisoning of ecosystems. Runoff from pig farms can lead to eutrophication of nearby water ecosystems, which can potentially lead to the water becoming anoxic and unable to support life (University of Guelph, 2011). Enviropig has been genetically modified to produce phytase in its saliva. This enzyme is important for the breakdown of phytic acid, an indigestible form of phosphorus commonly found in cereal-based foodstuffs. Bacteria in the guts of cattle and other ruminants, but not pigs, normally provide this enzyme allowing this dietary phosphate to be released and used by the mammal.

It can be argued that we have a duty to care for the environment and, as noted above, this is taken to be the motivation for producing Enviropigs. However the project has been criticised as a ‘band-aid’ solution, a quick-fix rather than a sustainable approach (Critical Knowledge Collective, 2010). More fundamental changes to the pig farming industry are needed, such as reducing the density of pig populations and altering their diet to contain less phytates. Imposing changes on farmers and, potentially on consumers too, represents a restriction on their autonomy.

Secondly, the development of Enviropigs raises issues regarding production of transgenic animals and the genetic modification of food. The public appears to still hold some aversion to GM foods (CBS, 2010). However, a report by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (2003) suggested that people are more inclined to buy GM food when the price is better than alternatives and if they are provided with sufficient information. It should be noted that this report was based on attitudes to GM crops and people often have stronger feelings regarding GM animals than plants.

Fiester (2008) notes three common arguments raised against animal biotechnology; these are: ‘playing God’, animal integrity and animal welfare. Fiester indicates that these views can be readily countered with some well-placed arguments. The ‘playing God’ and animal integrity standpoints are emotive and hence prone to subjectivity. She uses Bovenkerk et al.’s 2002 definition of animal integrity: ‘wholeness and intactness of the animal and its species-specific balance, as well as the capacity to sustain itself in an environment suitable to the species’. Since pigs, including the Enviropig, are domestic animals they would generally be unable to survive in the wild due to their dependence on humans in various aspects of their life, such as reproduction and nutrition (Heslop-Harrison, 2012). There is the possibility that the Enviropig may do well in the wild due to its ability to produce phytase, though since it would never be allowed to do so and would be controlled because of its genetic modifications, the point is moot.

In regard to animal suffering, the University of Guelph states that all of their Enviropig research and experiments have been conducted in accordance with Canadian guidelines (University of Guelph, 2011).

The Enviropig project raises several ethical points and caused quite a media stir when applications to the US Food and Drug Administration for human consumption were initiated. The appropriateness of this development needs to be evaluated from the perspective of various stakeholders including farmers, consumers, the animals themselves and the environment.

References

Bovenkerk, B., Brom, F.W.A. and van den Bergh, B.J. (2002) Brave New Birds: The Use of ‘Animal Integrity’ in Animal Ethics, Hastings Centre Report, 32(1):16-22

CBS (2010) Modified Salmon: Miracle Food or ‘Frankenfish’? Available at accessed 26/2/12 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/09/20/tech/main6884004.shtml [Accessed 26th February 2012].

Critical Knowledge Collective (2010) Enviropig questions. Available at http://criticalguelph.blogspot.com/2010/11/enviropig-questions.html [Accessed 26th February 2012].

Fiester, A. (2008) Justifying a Presumption of Restraint in Animal Biotechnology Research, American Journal of Bioethics 8: 36-44.

Heslop-Harrison, P. (2012) Domestication characters [lecture], University of Leicester.

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (2003) Public sentiment about genetically modified food. Available at http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Public_Opinion/Food_and_Biotechnology/2006summary.pdf [Accessed 26th February 2012].

University of Guelph (2011) Enviropig. Available at http://www.uoguelph.ca/enviropig/index.shtml [Accessed 24th February 2012].

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Headline Bioethics Commentaries are short articles on the bioethical issues raised by a story in the news. The articles are authored by second year undergraduates at the University of Leicester (UK). A printable version of this article is available via this link.

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