When Pigs Fly and Lives are Saved

medical professionals working

I used to worry that the foes of modern farming would end their fight against GM technology only when pigs would grow wings and take flight.

That hasn’t happened, but what if pigs were to grow hearts and save human lives?

two men wearing blue lab coatsThis dream became a reality earlier this month when doctors in Baltimore transplanted the heart of a gene-edited pig into a man with a life-threatening ailment, presenting us with the latest example of a medical miracle.

The New York Times called the emergency transplantation “a groundbreaking procedure that offers hope to hundreds of thousands of patients with failing organs.”

As a farmer who has grown genetically modified crops and is the recipient of a kidney transplant, I’ve taken a special interest in this case. Its implications for human wellbeing are hard to overestimate.

The animal donor was bred to grow an organ that a human body would accept rather than reject. This special pig was the product of the same gene-modifying technologies that over the last generation has improved the practice of agriculture around the world.

When genetically modified crops became broadly available at the start of this century, a lot of people were skeptical. The science was new and unfamiliar. Altering the genetic structure of plants seemed just plain weird.

I studied the science behind GM technology and became convinced that it was not only safe, but that it also offered a remarkable opportunity to grow more food on less land than ever before. As I planted and harvested genetically modified corn and soybeans on my farm in New Jersey, I observed firsthand how they defended my crops against weeds and pests. These were the best crops I’d ever seen.

GM crop technology is a big part of the reason why food is more abundant, environmentally sustainable, and affordable right now than ever before.

Today, of course, GM crops are widely accepted. Farmers have grown billions of acres of genetically modified crops, and people eat healthy meals derived from them all the time.

Sadly, GM technology still faces a few pockets of resistance, especially among European political activists. Their anti-GM ideologies have delayed the adoption of genetically modified crops in several developing nations, especially in Africa. This is one of the main reasons why that continent still lags the rest of the world in food production.

Now that gene editing technology has moved from the cornfield to the operating room, however, the enemies of biotechnology may want to rethink their resistance. The advantages of biotechnology are perhaps more obvious than ever before. They just saved a human life and they’re going to save a lot more.

I’m the direct beneficiary of an organ transplant: My daughter’s kidney is in my body, keeping me alive.

I’d be dead today except for the grace of God and my daughter’s kindness. I’m also indebted to the doctors who performed the surgery as well as the science that made it possible.

Thanks to genetic technology, more people with failing organs will enjoy the second chance at life that I’ve been blessed to have.

Last year, about 41,000 Americans received an organ transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. More than half of the transplanted organs were kidneys, followed by livers, hearts, and lungs.

Yet the need is great. More than 100,000 Americans are on a waiting list for an organ transplant, and 17 die each day, reports the Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency.

It’s possible to imagine a future in which gene edited pigs are saving lives all the time—a moment when these organ transplantations don’t make headlines and are as routine as the growing of genetically modified crops.

I’m tempted to think that without the advent and acceptance of GM crops, we wouldn’t now stand at the threshold of a new branch of medicine involving organs harvested from gene edited pigs. If we’re fortunate, perhaps the spread of pig-to-human organ transplants will persuade the few remaining anti-GM technology protestors to abandon their ill-advised fight against modern farming.

At least I have a right to think so.

That’s what the title character says during a wacky conversation in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the classic novel by Lewis Carroll.

“Just about as much right,” replies the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly.”

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr.

John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, previously raising 1,400 acres of fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm now raises 70 acres of field corn and John advises local farmers on growing and marketing retail vegetables. John volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and has provided leadership to the Farmland Preservation Board, the Vegetable Growers Association of New Jersey and New Jersey Tomato Council. As a former New Jersey Farm Bureau President, his interest and long-time support of free trade was supported by his involvement in 11 international trade missions and engagement in World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and Geneva.

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