It was poised to become one of the first genetically modified animals produced for human consumption. Now, the University of Guelph's controversial Enviropig faces an uncertain future, as its primary industry sponsor has decided to quit funding the transgenic swine.
Industry association Ontario Pork says it is redirecting its funding of the Enviropig to other general research projects. When the research dollars run out, likely this June, the university will be forced to decide on the fate of its current herd of 16 Enviropigs, engineered to generate less-polluting pig waste, said Lori Bona Hunt, a spokeswoman for the University of Guelph.
"One of the options we're looking at is no longer continuing to breed and generate live Enviropigs," Ms. Bona Hunt said.
Depending on whether the university can find an alternative funding source, the existing animals may be euthanized, she said.
Guelph researchers have been working on Enviropig for more than a decade and the project, supported by industry and government funding, has cost more than $5-million. The first Enviropig was created in 1999 by combining genetic material from E. coli bacteria and a snippet of mouse DNA, changing the way the pig digests. Researchers said the alteration would simultaneously eliminate the need for farmers to supplement the animal's diet with a certain nutrient, thus reducing feed costs, and minimize the environmental impact of its waste.
Consumer groups, however, say people don't want or need genetically modified animals in the food system.
The university has submitted applications to various government agencies in Canada and the United States for approval to allow the pig for human consumption. Ms. Bona Hunt said those applications will stay active until a regulatory decision is made or unless the university decides otherwise.
Research, mostly involving the genetics of the animal, will continue at the university and the Enviropig's genetic material will be preserved in long-term storage, she said. In the meantime, the university is looking for another sponsor or organization willing to take on the technology.
Over the past decade, Ontario Pork, which represents some 1,700 pork producers in the province, has contributed around $1.3-million to the Enviropig research, said Keith Robbins, spokesman for the association.
"When we first researched and were first presented with the product, … it was going to be beneficial to the world," Mr. Robbins said.
After reassessing the association's potential return on its investment in the Enviropig project, he said, "[we]sort of felt that we weren't getting the kind of return that was originally looked at in concept of that product."