This Little Piggy Is Not Going To Market

Following last week’s victory on the end of sales of a cancer-causing strawberry pesticide comes more good news for safe food: as a result of widespread consumer rejection of GMO food, Canadian researchers have been forced to shelve production of their experimental GMO hogs.

The so-called Enviropig promised factory farmers a way to cram even more animals into already overcrowded conditions. Hog farming is restricted because pig manure is high in phosphorous, which ends up polluting waterways near factory farms. So instead of stopping overcrowding, GMO developers intended to engineer pigs to produce less phosphorous in the manure – hence, the “enviropig.”

Now, after claiming for more than a decade that their GMO pigs would “soon” be marketed, the Canadian researchers acknowledged that they have been forced to end breeding of the enviropig. As reported by  Ontario Farmer magazine, with public rejection of GMO food riding high, the pork industry pulled support of the project, and the GMO pig is now in “genetic hibernation.”

Writing was on the wall for the end of the Enviropig last year, when Canadian pork processor Olymel announced it would reject the enviropig if it comes to market. Yet news reports continued to predict the experimental animal would be the first GMO meat on dinner tables. The GMO researchers promoted this prediction as recently as last year, when a lead Enviropig scientist told ABC News that “We have applications in to the FDA and into Canadian regulatory authorities with the objective of getting commercial approval for the pigs.” No mention of a potential shut-down due to public revulsion of GMO pork.

The enviropig is a classic example of industry’s false GMO promises. Like GMO crops (which industry claimed would reduce pesticide use, while in fact they have increased it), the enviropig creators developed a GMO to allow unsustainable food production to continue to be unsustainable, and used Orwellian marketing to claim it as an environmental solution. Then they spent years claiming it would be the first GMO animal food, that farmers and consumers would love it, and that widespread acceptance of their GMO meat was inevitable.

It wasn’t. See our timeline below for a brief history of the false promises of the enviropig.

Enviropig: A Chronology of False Promises

June 1999

In announcing the proposal to develop the enviropig, researchers admit the animal is intended to insure that factory hog farms will continue to push the envelope on environmental regulations by allowing them to raise even more pigs. Enviropig co-creator John Phillips stated, “Pork producers live under very stringent environmental regulations and can only raise so many hogs per hectare.” According to Reuters, Phillips went on to say that restrictions on phosphorous pollution of drinking water was the only thing restricting the size of hog farms. The researchers say the pig is four years or more from commercialization.

Enviropig researchers speculate that consumers may be willing to pay more for the GMO meat, due to its environmental attributes.

April 2001

Enviropig co-creator Cecil Forsberg admits that unpredictable allergies could occur with the GMO meat. “(I)t is possible that you could produce a pig that would do the job you wanted and yet it would be unsuitable for human consumption because it could cause allergies in a small proportion of the population,” he states.[i]

July 2001

Forsberg and his University of Guelph colleagues announce their studies show the “Enviropig” successfully reduces phosphorous in manure. Their press release states, “The next step is demonstrating that the animals are safe to eat.”

August 2001

In response to questions about Canadian government oversight, enviropig co-creator Forsberg tells the Canadian press that the GMO technology is moving “faster than a slim government agency can move,” and admits that no one knows how to test the pork for food safety. Nonetheless, he states the pigs “appear normal” and he predicts market approval within five years.[ii]

February 2002

Enviropig researchers admit that eleven envirpig piglets that died at birth or had to be euthanized shortly after (for unspecified reasons) were sent to a processor for use in animal feed, even though they have no permit for using the animals for human or animal food. A University spokesperson states, “(I)n a complex research enterprise, sometimes things do happen.” Despite the incident, researchers say they expect to market the enviropig within 3-5 years.

June 2005

Researchers say they consider the enviropig ready for market and for regulatory approval.

July 2007

Forsberg acknowledges having a hard time finding pork industry partners, stating that “The companies we have spoken to have gone organic, and they are very concerned, at least up to the present time, of having G.M.O. associated with their name.”

November 2008

Enviropig researchers  say they have submitted an application to the US FDA for approval to market the meat and that the agency has enough evidence to declare the pigs safe. Reports suggest possible approval in 2009.

June 2009

Forsberg admits that “About five years ago, we said we’d have them commercialized in about two years, and we have kept on saying that.” He also states that the GMO pigs grow faster than natural animals, though no one knows why. “I don’t know what the answer is….There may be some other elixir here that comes into play when these transgenic pigs are growing,” he says.

February 2010

Enviropig clears Canada’s environmental hazard review, allowing the researchers to breed animals but requiring them to do so in a controlled facility that is segregated from other pigs. They say they are looking for licensees for the technology in China, since hog industry partner Ontario Pork is wary of the GMO meat. After backing the project for more than a decade, an Ontario Pork spokesman states, “At this point I don’t believe that we are in a position to clearly determine what will be of benefit to Ontario producers and what may be of detriment to Ontario producers.”

July – September 2010

In July, Enviropig researchers say market approval is at least a few years away. In September, they say they believe that FDA is “more than halfway through” their application.

March –December 2011

In March, Canadian pork processor Olymel rejects the enviropig, stating it will not sell the GMO meat even if it is approved for sale.

Researchers say they have been looking for three years for an industry “partner” to fund ongoing enviropig development, without success. They say China is the most likely market for the GMO meat, though they acknowledge they have not submitted an application for approval there.

March 2012

After Ontario Pork pulls funding from the project, enviropig researchers say they are putting the GMO pig into “genetic hibernation” and will no longer breed the animals.

[i] Helen Branswell, ” Guelph Scientists Work On Cleaner Pig.” The Canadian Press, April 30, 2001.

[ii] Enviropig™’ Studies Search for Effects of Meat on Humans”, by Luisa D’Amato, in Kitchener Waterloo Record, August 3, 2001.