A soft spot for pigs


FOR THE city dweller, pigs mean pork, to the butcher a pig arrives in two halves to be sliced, boned and packaged. While for the farmer, who breeds and raises pigs, they represent hard work and a way of life. A money spinner when all goes well but, in a market noted for its highs and lows, a man may be bankrupted overnight as prices plummet for whatever reason.

Now, this bright and intelligent beast has fallen into the hands of research chemists because the animal’s physiology has similarities to our own.

For several years now, medical scientists have been looking at the possibility that cloned and genetically modified pigs might be used as organ donors to humans. PPL Therapeutics, which cloned Dolly the Sheep and a company called Immerge Bio Therapeutics, again from the United States, are working to eliminate two porcine genes that will cause organ rejection in people. Those in favour of this line of study claim that positive results could alleviate the shortfall in human transplant material.

Their work is meeting with stiff opposition from across the board, partly because pigs are subject to a wide range of diseases, and also because they carry a transferable retrovirus similar in nature to HIV.

In the race to prolong life at any price and perhaps motivated as much by profit as altruism, there may be a serious risk of introducing organisms against which the human body has no immunity. If sufficient progress is made, perhaps human trials should first be carried out on those responsible for financing the research.

When agriculture was part of our inheritance, back yard pigs were kept because they could convert almost anything organic, with minimum waste, into a year’s supply of meat for hard-up families, right down to their curly tail. Some smallholders continue to fatten and kill one each year: our Portuguese neighbours make it a party, celebrating the life of some enormous black porker along with family and friends. Cutting, salting, eating and sausage making, being labour intensive, requires plenty of liquid refreshment, and the work goes on into the following day.

Meat preservation, without the use of chemicals other than salt, is becoming a dying art. Neatly packaged with added water to provide bulk and several E numbers to enhance flavour, perhaps even the animal rights brigade can tuck in and put their consciences on hold, because that which is on their plates bears no resemblance to a living animal (I’m being ironic, of course).

My early days were closely associated with livestock farming, including the tending of swine and, over the years, I found we had much in common. Always up to mischief and seeking to raid the food store, our happiest times were spent covered in mud or, having escaped, making for the woods and freedom. So, I have a soft spot for this animal, underrated except as something to eat or for the lengthening of a human life at the expense of its own.

If research scientists crack the rejection problem, digestion of a meal of pork by the recipient of a pig’s liver might be seen to be a bizarre form of cannibalism. Perhaps this is a step too far and these prolific breeders should be left to get on with the work of providing cheap meat for the human race.

There was a sow called Lady Macbeth on the farm at my school, which gave birth to 22 piglets and founded a dynasty, the genes of which may still be around today. To tamper with such an inheritance is to abuse the building bricks of a species that existed in Europe six million years ago and has been domesticated since the Stone Age.

The design, testing and use of inorganic human parts began in 1950 with a satisfactory artificial hip joint, developments of various spares continued and, in 1982, the first artificial heart was inserted into a patient’s chest, prolonging his life for four months.

Now, the Boss has joined the bionic club and goes from strength to strength, anticipating another new knee early in the New Year. There have been a few pitfalls here and there, not least a doctor’s prescription for capsules to be taken once daily. Having bought them as instructed from a homeopathic and health food shop, he swallowed one every lunchtime. After receiving massage and manipulation for five days he was asked to bring them along to the next session. Halfway through, the woman, who was giving therapy, broke open a capsule and proceeded to massage his knee with the oil inside. There have been no adverse results to date.

During the past six weeks, I have come to realise just how much the Boss does about the place, not least the foul job of rubbish disposal. Green bins have a stink all their own, especially those that are always full. More often than not it is a case of picking a way over mattresses, old kitchen equipment and plastic bags full of domestic waste. Eventually the evil mix encroaches on to the tarmac. Bins are emptied and left a couple of feet out from the grass verge, turning a country crossroad into a dangerous traffic hazard. The presence of windscreen glass should be enough to enlighten the local câmara that something needs to be done, such as digging out a recess before some one is badly hurt.