By Rod Nickel
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A U.S. animal rights group hopes to save a herd of genetically modified pigs from early deaths after funding dried up for a Canadian research project that has stoked controversy about altering animal genes to produce food.
Possible euthanization of the nine so-called Enviropigs, descendants of swine first bred 13 years ago by the University of Guelph in Ontario to lessen the environmental impact of pig waste, has drawn opposition from Farm Sanctuary, a New York state-based group that places abused animals in new homes.
"For the same reason, the university wouldn't be euthanizing healthy puppies or kittens, they shouldn't be killing these pigs," said Bruce Friedrich, a senior official with Farm Sanctuary. "They have a moral responsibility to see that these animals lead out their lives being pigs."
The Enviropig is one of a handful of research projects around the world that could engineer the first genetically modified animal for human consumption. But GMO plants and animals face tough scrutiny from regulators, with some consumers leery about unproven long-term health effects.
Trade repercussions could be considerable if genetically modified meat entered the food supply chain without government approval. Canada is the world's third largest pork exporter.
"It would represent an unacceptable and irresponsible risk for the university to allow these transgenic animals to be under anyone else's control ... with the possibility that they could intermix with either feral or domesticated pigs, or even end up in the human food chain by accident," wrote University of Guelph spokeswoman Lori Bona Hunt in a statement to Reuters. The university is located 90 km west (56 miles) of Toronto.
The university may not euthanize the pigs if it can find a new partner in the Enviropig project, Bona Hunt said, after an Ontario hog farmer group pulled its funding in March.
If it does terminate the pigs, the university has said it would put their genetic material in cold storage and continue research by analyzing data it has already collected.
Enviropig's researchers applied several years ago for approval for human food consumption from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada. Those regulators have not announced decisions.
Finding new homes for GMO pigs would violate Canadian government policies, Bona Hunt said. An official with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency could not immediately comment.
With the university not budging, the next step for Farm Sanctuary, which says it has 250,000 paid members and supporters in North America, is to mobilize a campaign of emails and letters urging Guelph to save the pigs, Friedrich said.
"These pigs have been born into Guelph's research labs and have probably not yet had the chance to take mud baths and bask in the sun and root in the soil, and be pigs.
"Guelph owes them that."
Environmentalists have cheered the setback for the Enviropig project and are also closely watching applications by AquaBounty Technologies Inc's engineered Atlantic salmon, which contain a gene from another fish species, the Chinook salmon, to help it grow twice as fast as normal.
(Editing by Frank McGurty)