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Under development for more than a decade, the University of Guelph's 20 Enviropigs are close behind a Canadian-made supersized salmon in a race to become the first genetically modified animals allowed into the food system.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The small herd of pigs in a research barn in Guelph look like ordinary pigs.

They act like ordinary pigs, and presumably, they would even taste like ordinary pigs if anyone dared to break the law and sample one.

But these are Enviropigs. The transgenic creations of university researchers, they are the world's most controversial environmentally sensitive swine, and they're not legally fit to eat. At least, not yet.

Under development for more than a decade, the University of Guelph's 20 Enviropigs are close behind a Canadian-made supersized salmon in a race to become the first genetically modified animals allowed into the food system.

Starting with the discovery that an E.coli gene could produce a digestive enzyme that regular pigs lack, the Guelph scientists realized they could introduce genetic material from that bacterium into pigs to minimize the environmental impact of the animals' waste, reducing a major pollutant from large-scale production - and allowing pork producers to cut operation costs.

The market may soon need Enviropig. To feed the projected world population of nine billion in 2050, food production will have to increase by 70 per cent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Genetically engineered organisms will have to be part of the equation, according to the globe-spanning community of experts concerned with meeting those looming targets.

"You cannot feed the world at affordable prices without using the modern arsenal of inputs," said Marco Ferroni, head of the Syngenta Foundation, a Swiss-based non-profit established by its namesake seed company to pursue sustainable improvements in farm yields.

Among those "inputs" are controversial genetic modification techniques that enable faster and more environmentally friendly production of food, including intensive aquaculture and livestock, which are blamed for a significant amount of global greenhouse gas emissions. Critics say that genetic modification is a backward solution, one that papers over the problems of industrial food production.

But with mounting pressure to meet the world's food needs, the developers of the salmon and the Enviropig - both Canadian innovations - are taking their technology to countries where demand, commercial opportunities and the chances of regulatory approval are greatest. Although research in this country is responsible for both animals, the first country to commercialize them isn't likely to be Canada.

Scientists created the first Enviropig in 1999 by combining genetic material from E. coli bacteria and a snippet of mouse DNA. The gene alteration allows the pig to produce phytase, an enzyme regular pigs lack, which helps it digest naturally occurring plant phosphorous in its feed more efficiently. Pigs need phosphorous to grow. So as researchers see it, the benefits of Enviropig are twofold: Farmers would no longer need to supplement pigs' diets with mineral phosphate or commercially produced phytase, thus reducing feed costs, and they would decrease the amount of the nutrient that winds up in pigs' waste - making it less polluting.

The proverbial guinea pig to the Enviropig is the AquAdvantage salmon, owned by Massachusetts-based biotech firm AquaBounty and pioneered in Prince Edward Island. The genetically altered fish grows twice as fast as non-genetically modified salmon, and therefore requires fewer production inputs.

In September, the salmon was deemed safe to eat in a preliminary analysis conducted by the United States Food and Drug Administration. A committee of the agency is still considering whether more research is needed before the salmon can enter the final steps to market.

So far, the salmon has shouldered the brunt of public concern and regulators' scrutiny. AquaBounty's application to have the fish approved for human consumption has hopped more regulatory hurdles than the corresponding Canadian application for Enviropig.

"The FDA may not publicly state it, but it seems quite obvious to many people that they want to be the first to approve the latest and upcoming trends in technology," said David Hobson, manager of technology transfer at the University of Guelph.

The "FDA has a lot of resources at hand, as well as a government and an economy that promotes technology, believes in technology and is much more interested in having the best technology in the world," Mr. Hobson said. "Canada's maybe not as aggressive when it comes to technology."

He said Chinese regulators are also quickly catching up.

Garth Fletcher, one of the researchers from Memorial University in Newfoundland who did the original research for the genetically altered salmon, feels some affinity with other overlooked Canadian inventors - including those who came up with a light bulb before Thomas Edison. "Very few people know that it wasn't Edison but a Canadian scientist who invented the light bulb," he said, predicting that the Canadian roots of AquaBounty's salmon might also be forgotten.

It made commercial sense for AquaBounty to seek approval in the United States first because the potential market there is so much bigger, Dr. Fletcher said.

Still, genetically altering animals for human consumption remains uncharted territory, and regulators in the United States and Canada are still grappling with how such food technology should be handled. U.S. regulators have decided to treat genetically modified animals as veterinary drugs; in Canada, at least three federal agencies are involved in the application process (no animal or fish has ever been approved for human consumption in either country).

Mr. Hobson at the University of Guelph said that if the AquAdvantage salmon is approved, applications for other technologies from other companies will quickly follow. "But nobody really wants to go first, because it's probably five times as hard to go first as it is to follow."

Fewer government resources in Canada means the application for approval of Enviropig - which has cost more than $5-million to research - has been slow. The University of Guelph submitted applications to Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Environment Canada last year, as well as to the FDA.

Although Enviropig is about halfway through the FDA's seven-step approval process, the university does not know where it stands with Health Canada and the CFIA. (In February, Environment Canada approved Enviropig for commercial production because it was legally required to respond within 120 days. But without approval from the other agencies, any commercially bred Enviropigs at this point would merely be expensive pets.)

Even if Enviropig got the go-ahead in Canada, it would still require U.S. approval before it was brought to market locally, said Cecil Forsberg, one of the creators of the Enviropig. Since the United States buys so much Canadian pork, the entire domestic industry would be undermined if Enviropig were to slip into that food system unapproved, he said.

Dr. Forsberg said he has no hesitations about the safety of eating Enviropig meat. "I would almost be prepared to do it illegally, except I'd run into problems here on campus."

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, however, isn't convinced the market wants or even needs DNA-altered animals. "Genetically engineered animals are so far from what consumers want, so far from the trend looking toward a sustainable local food system, it doesn't make any sense that governments would waste taxpayers' money assessing the safety," said Ms. Sharratt, whose Ottawa-based group promotes sustainable local agricultural production.

She said dispersing hog production and reducing the size of farms - steps that would essentially reverse the trend of global food production - would ease the environmental burden of pig excrement without Enviropig.

Dr. Forsberg noted that the industry has indicated it wants Enviropig. If, and when, regulators approve it, the biggest hurdle will be winning over consumers.

"If consumers will accept it, they will produce it," he said. "So that's where the issue lies."