Today I heard a story making its round on the news and it made me wonder: does anyone in the newsroom know anything about pigs? About pork? About flavor?
The story goes that pigs lack thermoregulation genes that most other mammals have, so somebody used CRISPR to stick mouse DNA into pigs and gave them that gene. Now they can thermoregulate better, and as a consequence, they burn more fat and run about 25% leaner than normal pigs.
Along with all the usual dumb puns and blathering about genetic modification, the story is underpinned by three big ideas that happen to be all wrong:
- “Fat is bad. Low fat pork is healthier.” Come on, we know better than that… Do we have to keep on tangling with this misinformation? Sugar is wrecking our health, not animal fats. We never had an obesity epidemic when sugar was scarce and the average pigs were much fatter than they are today.
- “Lean pork is tastier.” No, no, no. For some meals you may want a leaner cut than others, but on balance if you want a tasty piece of meat, choose something with fat in it. Animals eating a variety of plants have a variety of flavor compounds deposited in their fat. If the pork fat you are eating doesn’t taste good, it is because the pigs aren’t being fed well.
- “This improves pig welfare.” Just because pigs lack a gene for thermoregulation doesn’t mean that they are suffering in the cold. They have a perfectly functioning adaptation that has been serving them for a long time in some very cold climates, much colder than ours. We have pigs that grow vigorously in open air shelters all winter long. The older pigs often choose to sleep out of doors in the winter; sometimes I find them covered in snow in the morning, even though they have dry bedding and a snug shelter available a short distance away. We may be able to measure differences in heat loss for genetically modified pigs, but that doesn’t tell us anything about whether the pigs mind the cold or not.
I suspect that what really happened is that the researchers were just messing around with a list of genes lacking in pigs and chose this one because it was a simple one to transfer with CRISPR and it would be easy to measure the results. Once they completed their study, they looked at the results and tried to shoehorn things into ideas that might result in future funding. “Look, this is great for animal welfare!” “Look, this does great things for meat!”
Who knows, maybe at some point we’ll find a genetic modification that is an excellent idea. But this fat burner gene isn’t one of those excellent ideas. Don’t accept boring, dry pork. Eat tasty pork with tasty fat. I lived through the terrible years of “Pork: The Other White Meat”. I don’t want to go back to those leather chops.