Two different pork projects point to two different answers to the question.
Scientific breakthrough or sci-fi nightmare: That’s the question society has been grappling with in regard to genetic modification for more than a generation now, with pro- and anti-GMO camps seemingly ever more entrenched in their respective opinions—leaving a wide swath of the public in the confused middle. But have scientists and other GMO advocates hit on a way to convince a wary public to accept genetically modified livestock as the wave of the future?
Even as G.M. crops have overtaken the American farmscape since their introduction in the mid-1990s, with genetically modified corn and soy now accounting for an estimated 80 to 90 percent of plantings, the American public at large—and, indeed, consumers worldwide—have remained queasy at the prospect of genetically modified beef or pork or even farm-raised fish. No country in the world has given the regulatory green light to selling G.M. animals for human consumption. The closest prospect, transgene salmon engineered for faster growth, has been waiting for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for 20 years.
But two recent developments half a world apart that hope to bring G.M. pork to market demonstrate just how fluid our opinion of genetically modified animals might be, depending on the circumstance.
In one key respect, the projects are similar: Instead of inserting genes from other species into the pigs’ DNA to confer a desired trait, scientists employ “gene editing,” which alters the animals’ genetic code. Proponents say gene editing is simply a fast-track version of conventional breeding techniques. After all, farm animals have long been bred for, say, size or fertility. But whereas “perfecting” a breed via selective breeding might take decades, gene editing can introduce a desired trait with what is essentially a snip of the genetic scissors. Because no foreign genetic material is being introduced, it seems that products from such animals may not be subject to the same regulations as other genetically engineered foods.
“There are some signs that government agencies will view [gene editing] more leniently than they do conventional forms of genetic modification,” Nature reported. “[R]egulators in the United States and Germany have already declared that a few gene-edited crops fall outside their purview because no new DNA has been incorporated into the genome.”
Does that terrify you? Well, consider the following two real-world examples.
The first project hails from South Korea and China, and if you’re already skeptical of GMOs, it’s probably going to set your stomach churning. According to Nature, scientists have developed a “double-muscled pig” by interfering with the gene that inhibits muscle growth in the animal. Such a pig could be a boon to pork producers, yielding more meat, that’s leaner to boot. However, “birthing difficulties result from the piglets’ large size,” according to Nature. “And only 13 of the 32 lived to 8 months old.” Just two pigs are still living, and only one is in good health.
Scientists hope to ameliorate some of those Frankenstein issues by artificially inseminating normal pigs with the sperm of the double-muscled ones—which one imagines would result in not-quite-double the pork.
In the U.K., a different gene-editing pig project is under way. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute are working to develop hogs that are resistant to African swine fever, which has been dubbed “pig Ebola” and is threatening pork production in Eastern Europe. By precisely “editing” a single letter of the pigs’ genetic code to more closely resemble that of a warthog, researchers hope to confer the warthog’s natural resistance to the fever to domestic pigs.
“These are happy animals,” Bruce Whitelaw, head of the research team at the institute, told The Guardian as he surveyed a newborn litter of G.M. piglets. “They have a lovely sheen on them; their tails are wagging away.”
“We’re not trying to make huge pigs, we’re trying to make healthier ones,” he continued. “I’d be staggered if anyone said, ‘No, I don’t want my animal to be healthier.’ ”
As the welfare of livestock has become the focus of increasing public concern, the tack of Whitelaw and researchers like him is arguably ingenious: If genetic science can convince the rest of us that it’s creating happier, healthier animals—and not just freakish meat factories—might that pave the way to G.M. bacon coming soon to a supermarket near you?