GUELPH, Ont. – The sharply divided sides in the genetically modified food debate were on display last week as activists marched in bitter cold while researchers and MPs discussed biotechnology’s potential inside.
On Feb. 9, the House of Commons agriculture committee listened as researchers and agribusiness representatives discussed the inevitability of GM material in the food chain and the need for effective regulation to harness the benefits of biotechnology research.
Several blocks away on the University of Guelph campus, scores of students and community and farm activists donned pig snouts to protest against an application by the university to win regulatory approval for the commercialization of enviropig, its trademarked GM Yorkshire pig.
It was developed in 1999 with a gene that allows it to absorb more phosphorus from feed, which reduces the amount of phosphorus supplements needed for feed, cuts the amount of phosphorus in pig manure and reduces water pollution.
The enviropig is now in its eighth generation of development, said University of Guelph communications official Lori Bona-Hunt.
The university has made applications to Environment Canada, Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to release it into the North American hog herd.
“The long-term goal is to take the technology and put it to use, commercialize it,” she said.
Environment Canada has ruled that it is not an environmental risk and can be produced in confinement.
Bona-Hunt said she didn’t know when other rulings could be made.
Human consumption trials are not allowed.
“We’re talking some time before there will be any movement toward getting it on a fork,” she said.
However, that was no comfort for protesters at the campus rally.
They carried signs and chanted slogans demanding that the university withdraw its applications that would allow commercialization.
“No GM pork on my fork,” was a common placard sign.
Sean McGovern, regional co-ordinator for the National Farmers Union in Ontario, told the crowd that the existence of the applications and the possibility they could succeed are dangerous.
“This GM pig could ruin the trust Canadians have in our pork,” he said.
“I’m very worried that a decision by Health Canada to approve the GM pig will trigger a consumer backlash against eating pork.
“It’s down to the University of Guelph to cancel their request for approval. This is the only way to protect our markets.”
Protesters also objected that the GM pig had been “greenwashed” by using a name that makes it sound environmentally friendly.
“It reduces phosphorus emission into the environment and into water,” countered Bona-Hunt. “It is good for the environment.”