Monday, February 14, 2011

Re-making the pig

Pigs eat feed containing phosphorous, which they can't digest. This phosphorus passes right through them and comes out in their poop. IF pig manure runs off and gets into rivers and waterways, it could cause algae growth.  Excessive Algae sucks oxygen from the water, which can destroy the habitat for fish.  So, to avoid having waterways polluted with pig-poop-runoff from hog farms or pig-manure-fertilized soil, you could:

-- contain the manure to keep it from getting into the waterways
-- reduce phosphorus output up to 50% by adding common supplements to the pig's diet

you could invest $1.4 million to create an "Enviropig" by inserting mouse DNA and ecoli bacterium into it to make its poop less phosphorusy. That way hog farmers wouldn't have to spend money on feed supplements AND corporations could patent and commercialize this new experimental pig for profit, not to mention the ultimate goal--getting this pig's products eventually into the supermarket and onto your dinner plate. (Ka-ching! Ka-ching!)

I say 'experimental pig' because no one knows if its products are really safe to eat or not. According to this video, since 1999, there have been nine generations of genetically modified pigs specifically produced to generate manure that will contain less phosperous. Rather than feed the pig nutritional supplements or do something to contain phosphorus-laden pig manure so it doesn't enter rivers and streams, the solution du jour to controlling the environmental footprint of pig farming is--to redesign the pig's digestive system.

They claim it's for the benefit of the environment. Hence the name "Enviropig."  That's the short-term goal--  to make its waste product less toxic to waterways. The long-term goal is to "produce a pig which can be consumed by humans and enter the food chain."

But pig reconfiguring takes time. Being able to eat this animal's bacon and pork chops is not going to happen right away. It'll take "another few years of regulatory assessment and possible approval" before that happens, they say. ("Possible" approval? Do I detect a wee sense of doubt here? that this new experimental Enviropig may not actually be approved for human consumption? Apparently back in 2007, application was made to the FDA to let GMO pigs enter the food chain. It hasn't happened "yet", the spokesman proclaims, ever the optimist.)

So far these pigs are simply being tasked with making a different kind of manure.  And, as they are experimental (requiring you to pass through high security to even get to see them) I was wondering what they do with the carcasses once the pigs die.  Please tell me they're not ground up, like downer cows, and reprocessed into pet food. Mutating the animal's genes, wouldn't the pig's carcass be considered biological laboratory waste?  They wouldn't recycle that into other animals' food chain--would they?  Wait, let me see if that ever happened.  [Pause while googling...]  Hmm, well what do you know.  Seems in fact that they did!  "Animal feed has been contaminated by Enviropig. In 2002, eleven piglets were sent to a rendering plant and became part of 675 tons of poultry feed, which ended up being fed to egg-laying chickens, turkeys, and broiler chickens. According to The Globe and Mail, the UofG's Vice President of Research effectively said, "Oops!"[1]
Oops indeed.  They take extraordinary measures to ensure humans don't infect the lab animals, but apparently don't mind if experimental lab animal remains get recycled into pet food.  Meanwhile, back in the non-biotech lab world, a growing number of people (including most of the European Union) don't want to grow GMO crops; people are kind of nervous about eating food that's been "modified" with genes from other organisms. The majority of North Americans, in contrast, don't seem particularly bothered by this.  Seems it's only those organic-oriented food purists, vegetarians, vegans and other assorted "health-food nuts" preventing universal acceptance of this profitable new technology.  What to do about those reluctant Europeans, though.

U.S. chief trade representative Miriam Sapiro went to Europe last week promising to "bang down the door of the European Commission to break Europe's longstanding impasse blocking the march of genetically-modified foods."  (The U.S. wants to "bang down" Europe's door.) "We have very strict safety standards," Ms. Sapiro said.  " ... that alone is good reason to make sure that our products are able to be sold in Europe."  (Monitoring and enforcing those standards, however, is another matter, not to mention some regulation allowed to be voluntary rather than obligatory. But that's another topic.)  "It's important," Sapiro insisted,  "to press the commission to go the right way."[2]   (The "right" way.  I wonder if it's ever occurred to this representative that GMO proliferation might not be, in half the world's opinion, what they consider to be the "right" way.) 

There are so many different ways to persuade someone to agree with you. Logic, reason, common sense, shared concerns. Maybe it's the tone people use, the attitude that refusal is not an option, that when persuasion and pressure fail, one can consider bullying, bribery, or blackmail--tactics common to power holders exercising their Power.  I'm not saying that's the case here.  It was just those words, "bang down the door" (not "dialogue to see if we can come to an agreement", but bang down the door, barge in, and pressure them to go "the right" (meaning your) way.  And if they're don't?  What next?  Draw up another retaliation list?

Actually, I think the panic in pushing Europe for more GMO crop exports might have more to do with the ballooning U.S. trade deficit--$40.6 billion as of the end of last year. So it seems to me a choice has to be made here--you either export goods countries are willing to buy, or if they're not--here's a thought--you might think about offering a product they will buy.  They would buy grain exports if they were GMO-free, but you're not willing to provide that option. Certain agro industries and biotech corporations would never agree to it. So your only option is to somehow make them accept what you're selling.  Your trade deficit problem now becomes their problem.  You are hoping they will solve it, by agreeing to buy what they don't really want.  Is this what they mean these days by "free trade"?  (Words, again.  They mean what you want them to mean.)

"The huge controversy over the introduction of genetically modified crops is well documented, but this (Enviropig) seems to take that debate a step further, and into even more troubled waters,"  says Andrew K. Kimbell at the Center for Food Safety. He believes it's hog farming that has to change, not the pig. "This is a completely novel cell invasion technology, which crosses the boundary of nature as no other generation has before." [source: video above; more on the Environpig, here and here].

There have been nine generations already of pigs engineered with mouse DNA and ecoli bacterium. You need to change your clothing and take a shower before they even let you enter the pig experimentation area. This is presumably so you won't infect the pig (or the pig infect you?).

Environmental footprints and global food shortage are things we need to be concerned about. Biotech offers genetically engineered crops and animals as a way to address this need. When nature won't cooperate (by producing faster, more multi-purpose crops and animals), nature must be 'harnessed' and changed. Let's put fish genes into tomatoes because fish can survive in freezing waters and we want tomatoes to be resistant to frost. Salmon take too long to mature? Let's cut that time in half, nature is far too slow on this. Pigs passing too much undigested phosperous in their poop? Let's make a new pig that will crap how we want it to crap. We can't say for sure yet but we assume it'll taste like any "normal" pig.  (Verifying that this is an "abnormal" pig.)

What strikes me is the unquestioning acceptance of bioengineering projects that experiment with our food as the (one and only) answer to the growing food crisis.  Monsanto sells seeds that are purposely created to suicide themselves.  That's so farmers who traditionally save seeds will have to return to Monsanto for more seeds every planting season, ensuring repeat business for Monsanto. Feeding starving nations, it seems to me, is secondary here to corporate profit.

Biotech wants to make your life easier--that's the selling point.   Hate being vaccinated by injection with a needle? (so painful). What if you can get your vaccine just by eating a banana or a potato?  Voila! Painless vaccinations!  You won't even know you're getting vaccinated.  A scientific team at Arizona State University has designed an edible vaccine by inserting the hepatitis B virus into a potato. However, "for the hepatitis B vaccine to work, it must survive digestion before acting on the immune system. But raw potatoes do not make an appetizing dish and they contain relatively inconsistent vaccine doses." So they're going to focus instead "on making genetically modified tomatoes and converting them into pills." Tomato pills, with vaccines in them.
Don't like those unsightly brown spots on your apples?  Food should be attractive, stay blemish-free.  They can fix that, too.[3]   Well, there have been some setbacks. Like the time they tried putting fish genes in tomatoes so tomatoes could tolerate frost. That didn't quite work out as they had hoped. They chucked the project, deciding not to patent or commercialize their new, improved, frost-resistant tomato.  It was tested but they're not telling you the results. ("Not available.")

Vaccines inserted into vegetables and fruit--would eliminate the need for refrigeration or needle injections.  Great idea, but where would you go to buy these new medical foods?   At a medical supermarket?  Or if at your local supermarket, would they be put in a section that said, "Vaccination Fruits"?  What if they somehow got mixed in with conventional produce and were eaten by people not needing to be vaccinated?  The results could be unpredictable.[4]

And what about adverse reactions, to the engineered animal or the consumer ingesting its products?   Side effects from the new, faster-growing GM fish include changes in swimming and feeding behavior, altered muscle structures, and decreased lifespan.  Some engineered fish are born with changes in their head or body shape.  ("But they taste the same as "regular" fish!")

Four years ago Monsanto fed genetically modified potatoes to sick medical patients in an experiment. The trials were too short, with too few people to show meaningful results.  Rats that ingested the same potatoes for six months had adverse effects, but they were said to be within 'permissible limits.' A spokesman for Monsanto concluded that genetically modified potatoes were as safe as conventional or organic ones, proclaiming that they had been consumed in North America "for years."[5] No independent studies have ever been done, however, on the long-term effect--only short, restricted studies by the industry producing the product.  In other words, they're saying, Get over it. GM food is here to stay.

That may be, but it is increasingly evident that decisions are continuing to be made by a select, powerful few for all of the rest of us.  Corporate lobbyists and the bio- and mega-farm industry relentlessly pressure government officials and the result of their influence is that they are the ones who are dictating what we'll be eating.

Choice is limited or nonexistent because GM products are not being labeled. Nor are they likely to be, because it's bad for business.  Somehow the practice of mutating and re-designing food in ways that nature never intended has gotten a bad reputation. They don't even like you labeling something "GMO free" because, again, it suggests there's something not entirely healthy about things containing GMOs. Now why would people think that, do you suppose?  But just so you don't--think that--they've systematically taken away your choice to know what is or is not in the food you buy to eat. You're free to not eat GMO products, they just won't tell you which they are.

Genetically modified crops are so pervasive now, it's virtually impossible to avoid them.  True, they've been around for a long time.  You eat these foods every day.  You're still alive.  So we should all just stop talking about it and get over it. Right?


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