Genetic engineering of plants and animals has been going on for a long time. The reasons for changing the DNA of life forms are fairly straightforward and seem to fall into two categories; humanitarian and profit.
For food crops, the most common reasons are to create plants that are resistant to insects, disease and herbicides. Another big reason for the growth of genetically modifying organisms is to alter the structure of the plant itself.
For example, if all the plants in a field crop shared the same genetic characteristics such as having a uniform height, having strong stalks that don't fall down and can resist borers, worms and fungal diseases, what a wonderful world it would be for the farmer.
Corn and soybean farmers have always been plagued by weeds. It is a concern in that weeds steal nutrients and water from the food crop. In the past, herbicides were used to kill the weeds but had to be used judiciously since they could kill the food plants as well as the weeds.
What if the corn and soy seed could be engineered to resist
herbicides such as Roundup? Now the farmer can apply much larger quantities of the weed killer and not be concerned about it getting on the corn or soy plants.
There is dark side and a host of unintended consequences to altering genes in a living organism. To see some of the implications of altering nature, take a look at the book, Pandora's Picnic Basket. Click on the interactive book image shown above to review and/or buy it.
Genetic engineering in the world of the factory farm opens up a whole brave new world. The meat and dairy industry has not been receptive to changing the system to accommodate the needs of the animals. So the logical answer is to change to animal to accommodate the system. Consider a few examples.
Excess phosphorus in hog manure has been a problem for factory farms. Meet "Enviropig". This particular pig has been trademarked and patented by the University of Guelph in Canada is now a transgenic pig.
Through the magic of genetic engineering, it produces an enzyme in its salivary glands that breaks down the indigestible phytic acid in cereal grains, releasing the phosphorus which is digestible by the animals.
The problem is not with the pig, it's the factory farm system that feeds unnatural grains to hogs in criminally crowded conditions thus creating the excess phosphorus problem for the environment.
Feathers on chickens in factory farms are a real pain when it comes to removing the feathers before slaughter. No problem; just do a little creative cross-breeding until you end up with a bald chicken.
This was actually done in 2002 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by a mad-scientist who thought the ugly red-skinned, featherless bird would be good for developing countries. It was smaller than normal broilers but "what the heck", just do a little more cross breeding until they get the weight up to par.
The only problem is that the birds can't survive temperature changes, can't reproduce, are susceptible to parasites, sunburn and mosquito attacks and suffer horribly compared to normal chickens with feathers.
Our dairy cows have been subjected to genetic engineering and selectively bred to produce 100 pounds of milk a day, about 10 times what they would be producing before introducing them to technology.
The resulting stress on their bodies causes a painful bacterial infection and inflammation of the udders called mastitis which afflicts over half the countries dairy cows.
So instead of changing the system to be a little easier on the cows, researchers at the University of Vermont and the USDA went to work to engineer cows that are resistant to mastitis; good news for dairy factory farmers, not so good for the cows that can now be worked even harder to pump out more milk.
Speaking of milk, according to the Telegraph in the UK, it seems that the mothers in China aren't putting out enough milk. Well what an opportunity for the State Key Laboratories for AgroBiotechnology at the China Agricultural University.
The mad scientists there put on their genetic engineering hats, got busy and spliced human genes into several hundred dairy cows to give milk with the same properties as human breast milk.
They hope to start selling this GM milk in three years since "the modified milk is a possible substitute for human milk...it fulfilled the concept of humanizing the bovine milk", says Professor Li, the lead researcher and director of the State Laboratories.
The research has the backing of a major biotech company. Wow, who would have guessed!
The book shown above concerns testing of Genetically Modified Organisms in Foods and is the first study of the screening methods and tools utilized for determining the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products.
It attempts to present a risk assessment of GMOs in relation to human consumption, economics, and the environment. Insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, and virus resistance are also covered in detail. It also identifies new GM food crops that are in the laboratory and may soon be on your table. After all, if the Chinese created cows that produce human mother's milk, can it be far behind in the U.S? Click the book cover to find out.
Speaking of biotech companies, the next big thing in genetic engineering is in turning animals into machines for the pharmaceutical industry. The practice is known as "pharming" and involves using recombinant DNA technology to combine human, plant or animal DNA to produce new proteins.
So far the practice has yielded growth hormones, blood components, insulin and a raft of new proteins for more research. Along with this is ongoing research in using animals, pigs so far, to grow organs for transplanting into humans, a practice known as xenotransplantation.
Just think, when the machine wears out and can't produce any more organs or engineered protein, it can be butchered, shrink-wrapped and eaten.
Taking it a step further, the University of Missouri's Division of Animal Sciences is now working on genetically engineering a cloned pig that makes its own omega-3. Can stores selling genetically modified food in the form of omega-3 pork be in our future?
Just think, we could eat pork for breakfast and get our omega-3 without killing any fish. Professor Randall Prather, Professor at the Animal Sciences Division says genetic engineering "doesn't just end with organ transplants and healthier breakfasts". God only knows what these scientists are dreaming up for animal exploitation.
Overcrowding and restricted movement of hogs in factory farms result in high stress levels and aggressive behaviors. Normally, the factory farm industry could care less about over stressed pigs except for one thing.
It seems that stress causes the animals to produce more acid which tends to break down their muscle tissue; much like our stomach acid breaks down meat that we consume.
The pork industry has given a name to this bleached out, mushy flesh..."pale soft exudative pork" or PSE for short. Umm, appetizing! In 1992 this unsalable meat accounted for 10% of the industrial hog production and cost the factory farmers $69 million.
A few years later, an Iowa State University professor announced the discovery of a stress gene and once it was eliminated from the gene pool, PSE problem solved. It didn't quite work out that way. They did eliminate the gene from the hogs and they lost fewer pigs in transit but it did nothing for stress; in fact it made things worse.
By 2002, 15% of factory farmed pigs were yielding PSE pork.
No doubt the researchers will keep trying, after all, if industry won't change the system then change the pigs. Wonder if they tried giving the porkers valium or xanax?
Pigs that produce a leaner bacon or meatier pork chops would be nice. No problem, genetic engineering to the rescue. Breeders went to work and produced a lean meat hogs except that they had weak legs and had trouble standing and walking and also had increased heart problems. We got our lean bacon but the pigs suffered horribly in the process.
Cattle or hogs in a factory farm environment are unlikely to live more that 150 days due to the unhealthy conditions of the environment.
No doubt that somewhere, someone is trying to figure out how genetic engineering can alter farm animals that will be able to live happily in filth, withstand disease, pain and abuse and not be bothered by tight confinement, overcrowding, foul air and stuffed with unnatural feed, antibiotics and growth hormones.
But is this the type of meat we want to consume?
Real pigs are almost extinct. Real pigs live in the wild or on the few remaining traditional family farms. Those animals that resemble hogs in the factory farms that give us genetically modified food are created mutants, altered to fit a system that would never be tolerated if people could see how their food is raised.
The outcry over genetic engineering of food crops is huge; where is the outcry for the animals?
Leave Genetic Engineering and return to Home page
Jump to the GMO crop controversies
Read about how to avoid GMO foods
Why do scientists love genetic engineering
Navigate to the lead-in to catastrophic diseases
Navigate to the lead-in page to human anatomy