Saturday, 20 February 2010

Pain and death!

Since Ben has hat-tipped me on this, it would be remiss of me not to end my blogging hibernation to post about it! The general idea, for the link-phobic, is that someone has decided that genetically manipulating animals to feel pain might be the solution to the omnivore's dilemma.

Now, from the most basic animal welfare position - by the way, a pretty good rundown of the 'rights' and 'welfare' arguments can be found here - this sounds like a pretty appealing idea. If your vegetarianism is purely based on the idea that animals feel physical pain while being slaughtered or through less-than-great farming methods, then by this rationale you could technically eat meat from animals who did not feel pain.

However, even from the welfare position I can see a few problems with the idea. Firstly, is the no-pain thing supposed to rule out the need to do away with some of the crueller farming practices that exist today? Is the abuse that often occurs at the time of slaughter - either delibarate or incidental to proceedings - more acceptable if animals are not feeling pain? In other words, I would be concerned at the potential for this development to turn the clock back in terms of the improvements in welfare that have been achieved over the past decade or so, and act as an argument against any that might be proposed in the future. Secondly, the focus is very much on physical pain, implying that this is the only problem. No suggestion is made to breed animals who don't feel boredom, loneliness, fear, frustration with confined conditions, sadness at having their young taken away, distress at seing other creatures killed - all of which should be taken into account as much as actual pain when discussing animal welfare.

On a related note, I can guarantee that research into this 'solution' will require large numbers of animal experiments - surely something welfarists, even those who are not ultimately opposed to all animal experimentation in principle, wouldn't be lining up to applaud?

Then, of course, there is the animal rights position. This is somewhat different from the welfare argument - and closer to my own beliefs on the subject in many ways - and takes the line that humans have no right to use animals for our own ends and should cease to do so. The issue is not merely that animals feel pain - although this can be considered as a possible baseline to seperate animals from plants - but that they are beings in their own right rather than tools for human use. According to this line of argument, scientific interference with a farmed species for the sake of making it easier to justify the exploitation of said species not only misses the point but can be said to make the situation worse by introducing a new level of exploitation. (The first step to breeding an animal who wants to be eaten?)

What aggravates me is the level of effort that seems to be put into scientific developments to make it apparently more justifiable to eat animal tissue. The lab-grown meat I can to an extent cope with - it involves a limited number of animal cells, at least at first, but were it to take off it would reduce the numbers of animals slaughtered; on the other hand it has the potential to create the same level of ecological disaster as the current meat industry is managing as we speak. This development is more ambitious, and involves a greater number of live animals, hence I have more intrinsic objections to it. But I wonder, really, why people spend so much time and energy attempting to make it more ethical to eat meat, up to and including trying to get around basic issues such as pain and death - surely going vegetarian would just be easier?

(Original hat tip Ecorazzi on twitter)

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