I talk to a lot of people who are enthusiastic about the possibility that advanced technologies will provide more humane sources of meat. Some have focused on in vitro meat, a technology which investor Peter Thiel has backed. Others worry that in vitro meat would reduce the animal population, and hope to use futuristic genetic engineering to produce animals that feel more pleasure and less pain.
But would it really take radical new technologies to produce happy livestock? I suspect that some of these enthusiasts have been distracted by a shiny Far sci-fi solution of genetic engineering, to the point of missing the presence of a powerful, long-used mundane agricultural version: animal breeding.
Modern animal breeding is able to shape almost any quantitative trait with significant heritable variation in a population. One carefully measures the trait in different animals, and selects sperm for the next generation on that basis. So far this has not been done to reduce animals’ capacity for pain, or to increase their capacity for pleasure, but it has been applied to great effect elsewhere.
One could test varied behavioral measures of fear response, and physiological measures like cortisol levels, and select for them. As long as the measurements in aggregate tracked one’s conception of animal welfare closely enough, breeders could easily generate immense increases in livestock welfare, many standard deviations, initially at low marginal cost in other traits.
Just how powerful are ordinary animal breeding techniques? Consider cattle:
In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk. At the same time, the number of dairy cows has decreased from a high of 25 million around the end of World War II to fewer than nine million today. This is an indisputable environmental win as fewer cows create less methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and require less land.