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Genetically modified pig project loses key funding

It would seem that pork from a Canadian-developed, genetically engineered pig won't be making its way on to Canadian dinner plates any time soon.

Ontario pork farmers have decided to pull their financial support for the controversial, multimillion-dollar Enviropig research project at the University of Guelph. That leaves the project's future in limbo while the university decides what to do next.

The Enviropig has been under development at the university for more than a decade, with $5 million already spent on the project – which is Canada's first attempt to genetically engineer a farm animal.

What makes the Enviropiggy special is that it is bred using DNA material from mice and E. coli bacteria so that the pigs are better able to digest the phosphorous in the corn, barley and soybeans that's in the feed typically fed to hogs on commercial farms.

By reducing the amount of phosphorus in their manure -- up to 60 per cent in tests -- the pigs can be more environmentally friendly. Phosphorus in farm animal manure is known to promote algae growth in waterways, leading to fish kills and other water problems.

As it works now, hog farmers generally either supplement their hog feed with enzymes that help the pigs break down the phosphorus in their feed that they can't digest. But those supplements add costs to the farmer.

The project appeared to be going well, with the researchers crossing a number of regulatory hurdles. Last fall, the university announced that the federal government had determined that the pigs were not toxic to the environment, giving the pigs a pass under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

That opened the door to allowing more Enviropigs to be produced under certain confinement and control measures.

But earlier this month, Ontario Pork decided to end its funding for Enviropig research. The group, which represents Ontario pig farmers, decided it was time to shift its research dollars to focus on such areas as efficient production methods and consumer research.

"Research on the Enviropig has been completed to a point where the genetics has been proven, and the primary researcher has decided that the project is at a point where it is best for industry or a receptor to take it over," Ontario Pork said in a statement on their website.

Because Ontario Pork was the biggest backer of the research, it's unclear what will be next for Enviropig.

The University of Guelph insists the project will continue, but with a reduced scope. That means breeding of the animals will stop and the current herd might be euthanized. But even then, lab research can continue using the project's banks of tissue and semen.

As well, the university is exploring other options to find another commercial partner.

"The University's business development office will continue to look for potential commercialization/industry opportunities," Ontario Pork said in a statement.

The aim of the Enviropig project has always been to eventually sell the pigs to commercial farmers. But even the developers recognized that the pigs would be a bit of a hard sell.

Surveys from Health Canada and others have found the vast majority of Canadians remain deeply suspicious of "biotech" and genetically modified food and concerned about the long-term risks.

Last fall, University of Guelph biologist Cecil Forsberg, the lead scientist on the Enviropig project, told noted that large commercial swine operations haven't been interested in undertaking the research.

"The impression we have from the major swine breeding companies, is that they are not interested in the technology because of the social issues, and if a swine breeder would start working with (the technology), people would assume all pigs were transgenic pigs," Forsberg said.

Submissions have been made to both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada to determine if the pigs are fit for human and animal consumption.

No decision have been issued from either agency. Those applications remain open.

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