Is Genetically Engineering Animals To Not Feel Pain Really the Solution to Factory Farming?

Last week the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by PhD-to-be philosopher-neuroscientist-psychologist Adam Shriver, from Washington University in St Louis, that really cuts to the heart of one of the deepest issues in the green movement: How does humanity best relate to the other animals on the planet? Shriver starts the assumption that, like it or not factory farming is here to stay in the United States. Therefore, we ought to minimize the pain animals feel in the slaughterhouse... by genetically engineering them to not feel it:

Tweaked Lab Animals Don't Avoid Painful Situations

No one is actually doing this yet, but Shriver points to research done into how mammals sense pain and speculates, because of the similarities between all mammals neural systems that one day that this could be applied to pigs and cows:

Recently, scientists have learned to genetically engineer animals so that they lack certain proteins that are important to the operation of the anterior cingulate cortex. Prof. Min Zhuo and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, for example, have bred mice lacking enzymes that operate in affective pain pathways. When these mice encounter a painful stimulus, they withdraw their paws normally, but they do not become hypersensitive to a subsequent painful stimulus, as ordinary mice do.

Prof. Zhou-Feng Chen and his colleagues here at Washington University have engineered mice so that they lack the gene for a peptide associated with the anterior cingulate gyrus...these mice are normally sensitive to heat and mechanical pain, but they do not avoid situations where they experience such pain.

'Would be far better than doing nothing...'

Shriver concludes that in all likelihood meat from cows and pigs genetically engineered in this way would be safe to eat because, essentially, you're not adding anything to them, just taking something away.

"If we cannot avoid factory farms altogether, the least we can do is eliminate the unpleasantness of pain in the animals that must live and die on them. It would be far better than doing nothing at all."

Shriver Accepts Unacceptable Boundaries

By those boundaries, perhaps Shriver is right. Perhaps taking away an animals ability to feel pain in the slaughterhouse is a good thing. But I don't accept those boundaries.

The fact of the matter is that Americans are eating an increasingly large amount of meat based on historical levels of consumption--which in case you missed it is linked to a huge proportion of greenhouse gas emissions and has a gigantic ecological footprint--and we don't have to.

In the vast majority of climates around the world, and for the vast majority of people, there is no nutritive reason why you have to eat meat. You may want to, but that is choice, not necessity. It is equally a choice, not a necessity, to create factory farms and all the horrors that go along with them.

It's a choice (sometimes passive, sometimes active) of injury over non-injury, cruelty over compassion.

We Need To Break From Utilitarian Environmentalism

In choosing to genetically engineer animals to have dulled or non-existent sense of pain, it would just be yet another example of: 1) Humanity yet again not acknowledging the damage it causes to other animal species; 2) thinking that the entire world has been created for our benefit along; and 3) whenever there is a problem, trying to find some technology to take care of the problem, rather than changing the behavior or mindset that created the problem in the first place.

Bluntly, this type of thinking, which proposes breeding genetically engineered animals so that they march more willingly to the deaths, just to feed the American palette's seemingly insatiable desire for blood and flesh, is but a subset of that ideology which places humanity on a pedestal above everything else in existence.

It's an extension of the utilitarian mindset, as opposed to the reverential mindset. Check out this older piece by Ragan Sutterfield on Industrial environmentalism versus holistic environmentalism for reference.

While Shriver's apparent desire to minimize pain is commendable, the solution is just more of the same, a false, piece-meal, business-as-usual solution at best.

Read the original op-ed: Not Grass-Fed, But at Least Pain Free


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