Sanitizing Nature.

A graduate student named Adam Shriver contributed to our never-ending quest to get rid of our guilt over the industrial agriculture system in a New York Times op-ed, promsing that we could soon have pain-free animals. Removing proteins or genes from some animals could prevent the things that should hurt them from doing so, creating a more humane agricultural system, he writes.

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.

There are myriad reasons for eating a vegetarian diet, and the desire to prevent the kind of needless suffering farm-factory animals experience is a noble one. Lately, that desire has stretched to a denial that animals should ever suffer at all -- Jonathan Safran Foer made this point especially strongly in his book Eating Animals. The suffering of chickens, pumped full of antibiotics and stacked breast to artificially bloated breast in cages too small for them to move in is many levels of suffering higher than what your average chicken might experience in nature. But that doesn't mean chickens don't feel pain during the course of their average-chicken lives. It just means that humans, Americans in particular, spend a lot of time too drunk on cheap meat to consider that what's best for the animals might also be best for themselves, since the inhumane ways in which we raise animals might also be leading to an increasing number of problems with unhealthy meat for us to consume. Trying to curb the abuses humans inflict on animals makes sense, though there are probably ways those efforts can go too far.

Removing the ability animals have to feel pain actually seems more like continued abuse, rather than a relief from it. In reviewing Foer's book, Jennifer Reese wrote about her own experiences in a ranching family, and how the sanitized version of nature that city-dwellers like Foer imagine just isn't true. She and others argue that Americans don't fully appreciate the pain animals experience both in nature and at our hands, and it's for that reason we abuse the relationship we have with them:

It is absolutely true that the ancient ties between people and animals have been grotesquely perverted by industrial agriculture, as the strongest portions of Foer's book make horrifically clear. But, unlike Foer, I believe that fixing the relationship is both possible and worthwhile. To declare that humanity should opt out of this relationship altogether strikes me as less heinous but every bit as arrogant and unnatural as the factory farm. This is what I think about eating animals: A good life, a sudden death—we should all be so lucky. This is what I think about Eating Animals: a compelling manifesto swaddled in a muddled and pretentious memoir about one squeamish and idealistic young man's distaste for eating flesh.

Distancing ourselves even more from the price animals pay to feed us will only make that worse. And it also focuses on the wrong aspect of eating meat. As Natalie Angier said a couple of months ago in the Times, plants enjoy living just as much as animals. The truth is, humans are always going to disrupt the life of another living being when they eat. The question is whether we take our contract with them seriously. Engineering away another problem doesn't seem to do that.

-- Monica Potts

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