Sunday, February 28, 2010

painless steak?

An Op-Ed piece from the New York Times this past week by Adam Shriver (a doctoral student at my daughter's alma mater, Washington University)...that unsettles me.

The problem:

Veal calves and gestating sows are so confined as to suffer painful bone and joint problems. The unnatural high-grain diets provided in feedlots cause severe gastric distress in many animals. And faulty or improperly used stun guns cause the painful deaths of thousands of cows and pigs a year.

The premise:

We are most likely stuck with factory farms, given that they produce most of the beef and pork Americans consume. But it is still possible to reduce the animals’ discomfort — through neuroscience. Recent advances suggest it may soon be possible to genetically engineer livestock so that they suffer much less.
A solution:

This prospect stems from a new understanding of how mammals sense pain. The brain, it turns out, has two separate pathways for perceiving pain: a sensory pathway that registers its location, quality (sharp, dull or burning, for example) and intensity, and a so-called affective pathway that senses the pain’s unpleasantness. This second pathway appears to be associated with activation of the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, because people who have suffered damage to this part of the brain still feel pain but no longer find it unpleasant. (The same is true of people who are given morphine, because there are more receptors for opiates in the affective pain pathway than in the sensory pain pathway.)

Neuroscientists have found that by damaging a laboratory rat’s anterior cingulate cortex, or by injecting the rat with morphine, they can likewise block its affective perception of pain.
The article concludes:
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.
I understand that blocking pain in terminal patients is a humane thing to do. After all, what is the point of denying relief for that kind of suffering in hospice? And Mr. Shriver's conclusion makes some sense, if we can't change the format, at least reduce the suffering...justified by it's better than doing nothing, right?

What needles me about this approach to animal suffering is the message it sends to sloppy humans: You can kill your food without "humanity" once the animal is anesthetized from pain. So, don't worry about the abysmal conditions, digestive and dietary damage inflicted. And don't worry about half-assed stun gun performance--the creature has its pain center "interpreters" turned off--you're guilt free. It is fundamentally and philosophically so full of holes that it makes me queasy.

Wouldn't it be better to put some of that energy into finding solutions for the cruel conditions, rather than research ways to pull a pleasant curtain in front the cruelty? Aside: what happens when animals don't react to pain? Will their keepers have no clue to serious illness or injury because the animals don't low or squeal?

I'm going to talk my steak-loving self right into vegetarianism at this rate. Fuck.


StevensVox said...

I loves me some steak, and chicken and swine and so on... and I am for cruelty free farms, but I really do draw the line at veal and now 'genetically engineered' food. There is just something very, very scary about that path. I fear will start running sown the street screaming, 'Soylent Green is people!'

Kim said...

I was a vegetarian before apathy got the better of me. But yeah, one of these days I'm not going to be able to ignore it anymore and will probably subject the family to some rabid non-meat ways. Damn you for making me think about it.

Epiphenita said...

Damn me is right. And damn NYT and WU for publishing articles that upset the carnivorous balance of my life. Or trying to.

I would kill (slave to the pun) for a local provider of naturally fed, decently raised, humanely slaughtered (is that an oxymoron?) cattle, pig and chicken.

After I read Omnivore's Dilemma, I scoured the interwebs for a local ranch with these conditions and came up empty.