The XX Factor

Progress: The Cows Still Suffer, But They Won’t Care

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe , Douglas Adams imagined a cow that wanted to be eaten and presented itself at the diner’s side, murmuring ingratiatingly. If memory serves (and I’m nerdily afraid it does), Adam’s anti-hero Arthur Dent recoiled in horror. Dent didn’t want to eat an animal that was standing there asking him to eat it, even if he had to concede that on some level it was better than the alternative.

And “better than doing nothing at all” is all Adam Shriver could muster on the NYT’ s Opinions Page to support advances in neuroscience that might allow scientists to “genetically engineer livestock so that they suffer much less” when farmed for their meat. The idea could best be summed up this way: A poorly aimed stun gun will still mean the animal goes to a painful death. It’s just that, thanks to the genetically altered operation of its anterior cingulate cortex, it won’t care. Mice bred with this mutation feel pain. They still snatch their paws away from a hot surface. They just don’t worry about it (which they show by not bothering to avoid the hot surface in the future).

Shriver’s argument is that as a meat-eating country, ringing in at an average 100 pounds of red meat a year each, we’re probably “stuck with” factory farms. And no one who’s read anything about a CAFO (Controlled Animal Feeding Operation) (you could start here or here ) could argue that it’s a kind way to treat an animal. Therefore, genetically altering the animals so that they feel pain but are not disturbed by it would be more humane than what we’re doing now. And this is what brings me back to Arthur Dent-because, while I do follow Shriver’s logic, I have to pick my jaw up off the floor in order to argue with him. Have we, as a society, really sunk so low that we would consider genetically altering farm animals instead of finding a way for them to lead what were once ordinary farm-animal lives, even if that meant a few pounds less of meat each per annum?

I’m all for eating meat. Pigs in particular are tasty beasts. I try to seek out locally raised meat and I talk to the farmers about how the animals were treated and slaughtered. But what I do is an expensive, time-consuming luxury. Most people can’t do it, and most people won’t, and that’s where Shriver starts his argument. But as awareness of factory farming grows along with evidence of the health benefits of eating animals raised as animals , rather than as a product, demand for healthily raised meat will increase, as it has for local produce. There will be room for things to change. This month’s Atlantic Monthly has a great article on the ways Wal-Mart is challenging Whole Foods at the locally farmed game. With enough consumer demand, making humanely raised meats available to everyone could be Walmart’s next frontier. (Laugh if you want, but note that Temple Grandin consults at McDonald’s , and that their changed policies about what’s acceptable in the slaughterhouse have meant big improvements in a few areas.) I’m reminding my grocery store tomorrow that I want them to carry meat raised on local farms and treated like cows, pigs and chicken instead of “meat.” Because suddenly, it looks like apathetic consumers may lead, very weirdly, to apathetic cows.

Photograph of cows by David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Creative Images.