Painless Meat

New Scientist:

Might “pain-free” be the next sticker slapped onto a rump roast? … Progress in neuroscience and genetics in recent years makes it a very real possibility. …  “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. … [who] contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. …

One objection to the idea of knocking out pain in livestock is that it could mean they put themselves in harm’s way. In 2006, researchers identified six children from three Pakistani families with mutations that inactivated one particular gene. None of the children had ever felt pain, though they appeared otherwise healthy. All the kids had bruises and cuts, and one, who was known to place knives through his hand and walk on coals, died after jumping off a roof.

There could be a way around that problem. Recent research indicates that the sensation of pain is distinct from the unpleasantness, or “affective pain”, connected with it. This suggests it might be possible to eliminate the suffering caused by pain without tampering with the physical sensation. … They have engineered mice that lack two enzymes … 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 (Neuron, vol 36, p 713). This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain. ….

Alan Goldberg … 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 (Alternatives to Animal Testing and Experimentation, vol 14, p 145).

This last result is striking.  (I can’t find the article to learn more – the journal is here).  Why not save farm animals from pain?  My guess: for most folks to be interested in reducing farm animal pain, they would have to believe farms animal suffer lots more pain than wild animals suffer.  And they don’t so believe.

But wild pain isn’t obviously the right standard.  If lives with farm pain are still better than not existing, it is still good to create farm animals even if they suffer more than wild animals.  But if reducing pain is cheap, it might well be good to reduce farm pain well below wild levels.

I really don’t know how much pain we cause farm animals.  So far I have given farms the benefit of the doubt, but I’d be interested in visiting typical meat farms in my area, if that could be arranged.

Added: Unnamed finds the survey article, which only considers pain-free animals in biological experiments, not farms:

Participants were evenly divided between agreeing and disagreeing with the practice, and scientists followed this trend. Participants who classified themselves as a member of an animal advocacy group or as a vegetarian were much more likely to disagree with the practice.

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  • John Maxwell IV

    Your last two links are broken.

  • Uwe Reinhardt

    The assumption that existence itself is a good thing for animals is questionable. Only if existence is inherently a good thing for animals would there be a question of whether the suffering inflicted by factory farming is “worth it.” Animals are not conscious of their existence over extended periods of time and do not have goals or wishes that extend into the future (as most humans do). Therefore, state of the animal in the present should be the focus from a moral standpoint.

    Tangentially, Singer’s All Animals Are Equal is a stimulating read whether or not you agree his approach.

    • Existence seems a good thing for you and I, because it is a prerequisite for the other good things we enjoy. Why not for animals too?

  • preferring to prevent sentient creatures from suffering needlessly would seem the basic mark of civilization. poll finds most people uncivilized…not a surprising result.

  • Unnamed
  • Robert Scarth

    I grew up on a beef farm in Scotland, but now live in London; my brother now runs the family farm and I regularly go back to visit.

    This story strikes me as the sort of nonsense only a townie could think of. Some points:
    1) In the normal course of their lives the cattle and sheep on my brother’s farm suffer no more pain than you or I do. If a potentially painful act is to be carried out (e.g. de-horning or castration) then the animals are given an anaesthetic.
    2) What pain they do suffer is as a result of some illness or accident. Without the pain it would be harder for the farmer to notice problems and so less likely that the animal would be treated.
    3) At the end of their lives the animals are killed but the methods of killing are so quick the amount of pain caused is minimal.
    4) Any farming method that causes the animals significant pain is likely to be less profitable. Pain is the result of damaging the animal and a damaged animal is less productive.
    5) A more significant problem than pain is the distress caused by handling the animals. This can be limited by reducing handling (e.g. breeding cattle that are naturally hornless so that they don’t have to be de-horned), and when you do handle them to use techniques that are less stressful to the animals: don’t shout at them, don’t hit them, use the fewest number of people possible, design your handling pens with cow psychology in mind. All these things are done, but this remains a problem.

    Breeding cows or sheep that don’t feel pain strikes me as expensive and unnecessary. The benefits would be minimal, and its addressing something that isn’t that much of a problem.

    • Yes, this is the usual story that makes me give farms the benefit of the doubt. But there are opposing accusations that cause doubt.

      • There are some “antinatalists” who deny it is good for people to exist. David Benatar wrote a book about that titled “Better Never to Have Been”. Alan Dawrst aka “Utilitarian” is particularly concerned with the suffering of animals and concludes that it would be better for most of them to have never been brought into existence due to the suffering they will experience.

      • Whoops, this was intended as a reply to your above comment in response to Uwe Reinhardt.

    • Aurini

      Robert, would you consider extending your comment here into a top-level post? Preferably with references cited, or alternatively link us to an article of similar quality?

      You sound sincere, and my innate drives would have me agree with you, but a comment alone doesn’t do much to shut up the crazies, you know what I mean?

      Cheers, mate.

  • Willem

    Man was one of the best thing ever to happen to the cow. Edible species that did not want to be domesticated got terminated. We made cow one of the most successful species on the planet, gave them health care and a roof over their head, and now they start complaining? They want to be genetically engineered to not feel pain? What happened to being happy with your situation?

  • “Even among researchers who experiment on animals”?

    Heh: he should probably have interviewed some more vegans.

  • Re: “Man was one of the best thing ever to happen to the cow”.

    So far, certainly – but we are also very likely to bring the cow’s eventual downfall.

  • A far better option would be to develop in vitro meat.

    Reducing pain is not the first priority in increasing an animal’s quality of life anyway. I would expect that reducing boredom would be much more important.

    The evidence that animals have no conciousness of the passage of longer scale time is inconclusive at best. They’re not (or only poorly) capable of forward planning but this is not at all the same. In any case babies have no long term static memory either but no one would suggest that reducing the pain that babies experience is more important than them staying alive.

    The whole discussion around morality and animals is paralysed by a poorly thought out concentration on pain reduction as the main ethical issue.

  • Matthew C.

    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 (Neuron, vol 36, p 713).

    It continues to amaze me how this kind of cruelty and torture is justified in the name of “science”.

    I’d be interested in visiting typical meat farms in my area, if that could be arranged.

    My father, a very mainstream occupational physician, worked on contract for a number of years at a poultry processing plant providing in-factory medical care. Shortly after he started working there, he completely gave up all factory-farmed meat. I suspect if many of us looked closely at where it comes from, we would change our meat consumption patterns. I am not a vegetarian or a vegan, but I certainly believe they have some very excellent points in the debate.

  • I just added to the post.

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  • For those interested in learning about the details of how animals are treated on factory farms, John Robbins provided many details in Part One of his Diet for a New America.

  • Sam Wilson

    Underwood Farms is out in Culpeper County. Is that reasonably close for you? Granted, they only have 200 head of cattle, which won’t really give you a taste of what life is like in a feed lot, but it’s probably about as close as you’d get around here.

    • Mapquest estimates 75 min drive, and that is my best offer so far, though if possible I should focus on the close conditions that are the focus of complaints.

  • Some elementary Hansonian cynicism would seem to be the most obvious explanation: Expressing concern for animals ordinarily signals affiliation with environmentalist groups, Whole Foods, and the Nature-concept, whereas genetic engineering signals non-affiliation with Nature. If people are more concerned with sending a signal or with controlling their affiliations, they’ll let the animals suffer.

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  • Pablo Stafforini

    If lives with farm pain are still better than not existing, it is still good to create farm animals even if they suffer more than wild animals.

    The emphasis on whether animals in the wild or in factory farms have lives that are worth living on the whole seems to me misplaced. What matters from a welfarist perspective is not whether existing is better for the creature than not existing, but whether bringing the creature into existence is better than not bringing her. The answer to the last question involves comparing the welfare the life of the animal is expected to contain if brought into existence with the welfare we are likely to create otherwise. Even if the life of the animal is not worth living, it might be obligatory to bring her into existence if we are expected to create even more suffering instead; and conversely, we may be prohibited from creating a new life even if the life is worth living, because by failing to create such a life we are likely to produce more welfare still.

  • Vilhelm S

    Presumably, if it is desirable to genetically engineer cows to feel discomfort instead of pain, then it is equally desirable to engineer humans in that way. In both cases the reasoning is “less pain is better”. Yet I suspect the idea would be much more popular for farm animals than for people. Why is this?

  • Julian Morrison

    I would happily suppress my ability to suffer from pain (without suppressing my ability to notice it). I would happily do likewise for animals. And I suspect that linkage will persist: people will not be willing to modify animals “against nature” unless they generally approve of “better living through science”. This is simply squeamishness about the breakdown of naive essentialism.

    Caveat: suppressing suffering isn’t an excuse to give the animals a poor quality of life or slap them around since they “can’t be hurt”.

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