I have a habit of going to parties every now and then. While mingling about with a crowd of strangers, conversations come to a certain denouement of a question, which should not be the prelude to an abruptly concluded conversation. I am asked, “What did you major in?” and my reply is “Biochemistry.” Quickly now, my conversational partners must excuse themselves. “Oh I really must get a drink.” they say waving a full glass in the air. I was wondering what about this simple statement made me so repellent, however I think I may have figured it out.
I just read a few articles today about the Enviropig™ a pig developed around 2004 that was genetically modified to produce the enzyme phytase so that it may break down phytic acid (found in pig feed) and utilize the phosphorus rather than passing it though to it’s feces where the phosphorus escapes into the surrounding environment and causes harmful algal blooms and other environmental treacheries. This engineering trick would reduce the amount of phosphorus found in pig feces at a significant rate compared to unmodified pigs.
Fast forward to April 2012, ten generations into research and design of these pigs and the project has been put on ice. Pressure from activist groups has lead to a predicament: no company will brave bringing these pigs to market. I stumbled onto the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network’s site and read a little about their attitude. Which I found a bit off putting. On their site they state that “there is already the cost-effective, simple technological fix of a phytase supplement that can be added to hog feed.” This language particularly irks me out.
The word “technological” should read “bio-technological.” The fact is that the phytase enzyme which farmers would add to pig feed requires Genetically Modified yeast strains or other biotech production methods in order to be produced in massive quantities. On top of this their website cites no true reason why the Enviropig™ should not be allowed to enter the market besides the fact that this network of people are scared of something that is unfamiliar to them.
It really makes me wonder why people don’t seem to be too concerned about receiving help from transgenic organisms to craft our cheese (Chymosin), fight diabetes (Insulin), or cause our pigs to shit out less phosphorus via supplementation (phytase). To just modify the pig, we have shut down a manufacturing plant in favor of a living solution!
In the NY Times article I linked above, Dr. Cecil Forsberg is quoted as saying “It’s time to stop the program until the rest of the world catches up…And it is going to catch up.” This was a bit soothing to me. It helped me to really understand that there is still a majority of the population which opposes and is scared of the genetic modification of most organisms. This is why people run away from me after I announce an interest in Biochemistry at parties.