Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism

cowsAll but the most ardent and uncaring carnivores among us would probably agree that factory farming is a cruel and unpleasant lifestyle for the animals that eventually become our food. There are numerous answers to this ethical dilemma (aside from vegetarianism, of course), the newest of which is the suggestion that livestock be genetically re-engineered so that they don’t feel pain:

“If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. In a provocative paper published this month, Shriver contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. “I’m offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering.”


Performing brain surgery on livestock wouldn’t be feasible on an industrial scale. Livestock would have to be genetically engineered to be pain-free for it to be profitable.

Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis and colleagues are identifying the genes that regulate affective pain. Already, they have engineered mice that lack two enzymes which help neuron-to-neuron communication in the ACC. When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards. This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain.

Now, I’m no militant animal rights campaigner, but Shriver’s suggestion sounds like aside-stepping of the issue rather than a solution. The ethical problem is the way we farm animals, and their suffering is a function thereof; removing their ability to feel pain would be like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than aiming to cure the disease itself, and the ethics of such a sweeping piece of genetic engineering is a whole new can of worms in and of itself. It certainly wouldn’t buy off my own guilt about factory farming… and it seems that I’m not the only one:

“Large farms have become an environmental disaster,” agrees Alan Goldberg at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They generate enormous amounts of waste and greenhouse gases and breed antibiotic resistance. “I think factory farms have to go, it’s that simple.”

Goldberg also contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals.

Even Shriver (apparently a life-long vegetarian himself) agrees that the better option is to abolish factory farming entirely, which makes me wonder whether his suggestion is in fact a form of deliberately provocative rhetorical gambit. Personally, I think that vat-grown meat is the best long-term solution… as well as the only one that has a chance of scaling in response to global consumption patterns. [image by law_kevan]

2 thoughts on “Pain-free animals and ethical carnivorism”

  1. Yes, until we have practical “vat-grown” meat, people will eat animals. I think that’s fine and healthy (for us, anyway). But as food sources. animals are simply not energy efficient. As such, technology will eventually make “natural” meat uneconomical compared to synthesized meat. And with a little (or maybe a lot of) luck, the synthesized meat will taste better and be more nutritious too. This applies to all meats, including chicken, fish, etc. But one problem, that I expect most animal lovers to not anticipate, is that this will reduce the value of animals to society. Remember, nowadays, any animal that people like to to eat is never in danger of extinction. Chicken, turkey, fish, cattle, etc are too important to let them die out. But once we truly don’t need them anymore, their numbers will dwindle to match those of the rather odd-looking animals that we keep in zoos. Some now-common species may even go extinct, which is more than a bit ironic, since it will be because we specifically no longer consider them to be worth eating.

  2. Destroying the ability to feel pain sounds like a very poor idea to me. Pain is a survival mechanism and an animal unable to feel it would quite likely injure itself without realizing.

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