I understand the human enthusiasm for technology, for fast cars and laptops and high-rise buildings and anti-anxiety drugs, and foods that can sit on grocery shelves for years without going bad. It’s shiny and exciting and convenient. And we all use these or other modern tools, including me.
But when I think about technology, I also think about Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, caught up in the gears, swept up by giant metal wheels then dumped out some other end. I think of technologies in which it’s not the people who are in charge, but the machines.
Genetically engineered foods have the potential to be like that. We create them by taking a piece of genetic material from one species and splicing it into another, to confer desirable characteristics from the donor species onto the recipient. So a cold-water gene from a fish was crafted into a tomato, years ago, and there have been many such experiments since. But once we engineer a food species, there’s a high probability we lose control. Genetically engineered canola seeds scatter on the wind and mix with conventional (or even chemical-free organic) canola. Genetically fancy fish or pigs could mate with the traditional kind. Pretty soon it’s not us in charge, but the technology.
There’s another way in which genetically engineered foods take control away from most of us. Whether or not you believe such high-tech foods are superior to the regular kind (and critics say there’s little evidence of upside to GE foods, and much evidence of potential downside), genetically tweaked foods have the consequence of controlling ownership and power in fewer hands. That’s because large biotechnology enterprises seek, and are granted, patents over these novel plants or animals, plus over the offspring of those species. That means most of us are no longer in charge of our food. Someone else is.
I’ve been thinking about the loss of control that can come with technology after hearing of the probable demise of the genetically engineered pig. It’s a win for opponents of genetic engineering (which is also known by supporters under the gentler term ‘genetic modification.’) The so-called EnviroPig, as the genetically tweaked animal is called, has lost its major funding source and may never come to market, according to articles in the Globe and Mail[i], and from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network[ii]. Promoted by a team at the University of Guelph, the EnviroPig was designed to produce manure containing less phosphorus than that of normal pigs, a result of the addition of a piece of mouse DNA plus genes from e. coli bacteria that altered the pigs’ digestive systems. Less phosphorus in livestock manure would mean less pollution from the many pigs held in factory farms. But according to media reports this week, the industry association Ontario Pork says it is redirecting its funding of the EnviroPig to alternative research projects. This while the pig project is still awaiting government approval in Canada and the United States for development and commercialization.
Supporters of EnviroPig say they’ll keep looking for other funding sources. But opponents are pleased that this controversial initiative may be off the table for now.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a better idea than genetically engineering pigs for less phosphorus. It’s true that livestock in Canada and elsewhere often produce more manure than can serve as useful fertilizer. The waste can then pollute water and soil – and that waste contains phosphorus along with nitrogen and other chemicals including antibiotics and further pharmaceuticals fed to the animals. Excess manure also releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and other toxins. The better idea is this — and it’s not only mine but that of a growing number of health and environmental experts around the world. Let’s eat less meat. Let’s cut down on our intake of animal products to moderate levels, so we can raise animals naturally and within the capacity of local ecosystems to feed them and to absorb their waste. I discuss this in my upcoming book High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat, which will be released by New Society Publishers later this year.[iii] I welcome your comments.
[i] W. Leung, University of Guelph left foraging for Enviropig funding. Globe and Mail. April 2, 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/university-of-guelph-left-foraging-for-enviropig-funding/article2390075/