This story might sound like an April Fool’s joke, but we assure you, it’s totally real. Canadian researchers have developed Enviropig, a line of genetically engineered Yorkshire pigs that can digest phosphorous more efficiently than traditional Yorkshires. Scientists hope the Franken-pigs will prevent phosphorous from running into waterways and decrease the incidence of dead zones. While the idea of modifying pigs to be more earth-friendly is certainly interesting, we have to ask – wouldn’t it make the most sense environmentally to simply stop eating or at least cut back on consuming so many animal products? Instead of messing with nature, we could drastically cut the impact of all of the pigs and cows we eat if we just changed our diets a bit.

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Run-off from agriculture and animal operations often winds up in rivers, lakes and ocean deltas, spiking the water’s phosphorous levels. All that phosphorous acts like a fertilizer and sparks the growth of algal blooms. Those blooms deplete the water’s oxygen levels, creating dead zones. By decreasing the amount of phosphorous animals release in urine and feces, scientists hope to reduce the incidence of dead zones.

Environment Canada, a government-run organization, approved Enviropigs last month for production in controlled research settings. University of Guelph researchers engineered the pigs to make their own phytase, an enzyme that breaks down phosphorous. Traditionally, farmers give pigs an enzyme supplement so they can properly digest phosphorous. However, the supplemenets are not as efficient as naturally occurring enzymes so much of the phosphorous is released in urine and feces. Enviropigs emit up to 65 percent less phosphorous than traditional Yorkshire pigs.

Scientists will continue to test Enviropigs, but actually getting them to market may take years: Pigs would need to pass US and Canadian tests for commercial use and human consumption, including safety tests by the US Food and Drug Administration. To date, the FDA has never approved transgenic animals for human consumption. We’re all about designing and adapting things to make our lives and the environment better, but in this case, we think we could all benefit more from simply eating less pork than going through the trouble and possible hazard of genetically engineering piggies.

+ University of Guelph

Via National Geographic