The news of China's plans to clone cattle to meet its growing demand for meat is yet another signpost on a road heading for a dark future for factory-farmed animals and for our own moral well-being. It's a road we need not take.
A biotechnology consortium says it will complete the commercial cloning facility near Beijing in 2016 to produce up to a million cattle a year in the span of five years. The plan has dismayed animal welfare advocates, as cloning has severe adverse effects on animal health.
That's why the European Parliament (EP) recently voted to ban animal cloning for food. A member of the EP's environment committee summarized the ethical issues: "Many of the animals which are born alive die in the first few weeks, and they die painfully. Should we allow that?"
But China's disturbing project is in many ways just building on the pitiless commodification of animals already inherent in intensive animal agriculture. The industry's plans to push intensification further are as troubling as cloning.
Scientists working to produce faster-growing meat chickens have already used selective breeding to create "broilers" that are bigger than chickens were a few decades ago. A recent peer-reviewed article in a science journal reported that if humans grew as fast as broilers, "a 6.6-pound newborn baby would weigh 660 pounds after two months."
This has caused numerous health problems for chickens, whose skeletons and organs cannot keep up with the rapid growth. They suffer from lameness, shortness of breath, collapse and congestive heart failure. Chickens pay the price for increased productivity with constant pain and suffering.
But the poultry industry hopes to squeeze more meat out of the chicken. "We are only at the beginning of understanding everything we can do," Olivier Rochard of the poultry genetics company Hubbard recently told the Wall Street Journal.
(Hubbard's slogan is "Less feed, More meat".)
In the 1980s, 10 per cent of a chicken's weight was breast meat. Today, it's 21 per cent and poultry geneticists think they can push it to 30 per cent. This shift in the birds' weight, designed to meet demand for more breast meat, distorts their anatomy and puts extreme pressure on their developing legs. The result is more pain.
The scientific push to get more meat off each animal coincides with a global expansion of factory farming. The United Nations predicts that much of the future demand for livestock production "will be met by large-scale, intensive animal-rearing operations."
Agri-business giant Cargill, for example, has developed poultry operations that hold as many as 240,000 birds, with 20,000 in a single barn. Visitors to these barns reportedly must wear biosecurity suits and boots, go through four showers and two disinfecting sprays before entering.
The chickens are provided with bottle-caps hung from the ceiling to peck at, a feature of "enriched" housing.
The industry says it must expand to meet rising global demand for protein. But must we increase our dependence on animal protein, with all its environmental, health and ethical hazards?
One promising alternative is the development of plant-protein. A number of North American and European start-ups have attracted attention (and investment) with new meat, dairy and egg substitutes.
One company, Beyond Meat, says its goal is to reduce global meat consumption by 25 per cent by 2020. Some Canadian producers are already well-established. Gardein Protein International, for example, has its meat-free products in 22,000 retailers in the U.S.
In fact, Canada is already a major producer of plant protein in the form of pulses -- beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas. As many of the new meat and dairy substitutes use pea protein, Canadian agriculture is in a unique position to supply this emerging industry. Pulses are cheap, highly nutritious and environmentally beneficial, as they require relatively little water and fertilizer to grow.
The meat industry in Canada enjoys considerable government financial support. Why not divert that support to the development of a plant protein sector? Reducing our dependence on animal protein would not only help the environment and improve our health, but would also save millions of animals from suffering on factory farms.
If we continue to pursue the unrestrained genetic manipulation, cloning and warehousing of animals on mega-farms, we will have lost any sense of moral obligation to the animals in our care. It's time to change direction -- toward a future in which our consumption is tempered by our compassion.
MORE ON HUFFPOST: