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.
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According to the USDA, 36.8 billion pounds of broiler chicken were raised and killed for consumption in 2013. Since these animals live in such close quarters, some farm operators remove the beaks of chickens, turkeys and ducks to keep them from pecking one another to death, often by burning or cutting the beaks off. Although a number of scientists claim that this practice does not cause the animals too much pain, a significant portion of them die throughout the ordeal. Despite the mass amounts of chicken, turkey and ducks we consume annually, fowl are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act. This means that unlike the mammals we consume, chickens can be killed however the farm owner sees fit.
In 2011, more than 80 percent of antibiotics produced were fed to livestock. Although some of these drugs were necessary to keep animals healthy in conditions that would otherwise make them sick, like living on top of one another's waste, most of it was specifically administered to artificially increase rapid growth. While it may seem like these drugs could be inadvertently protecting consumers from disease, they are actually contributing to the terrifying rise of superbugs -- deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria that thrive and multiply in the absence of weaker microbes.
According to one study, 65 percent of all hogs tested had pneumonia-like lesions on their lungs. Researchers believe this is due to ammonia and other gases released from the massive amounts of manure that the animals come into contact with every day.
In 2009, Mercy For Animals went undercover at a Hy-Line Iowa egg factory and discovered that baby chickens who were of no egg-laying use to the buyers (read: male chicks), were put on a conveyor belt and sent directly to a grinder. Hy-Line defended this practice by insisting that it was industry standard.
While cows can live naturally to about twenty years old, many dairy cows living in factory farms are sent to slaughter before they reach the age of five. Though cows can naturally remain productive for 12-15 years, the intensive conditions of industrial dairies can take a toll on their health.
Every year, millions of sows are kept in cages called "gestation crates," a cost-cutting measure that keeps the pregnant pigs immobilized. The concrete floors beneath the crates are often slatted so that manure can just slip through into huge pits. After spending a full four-month pregnancy in these gestation crates, the sows often suffer from abscesses, sores and ulcers. However, even when the pigs are released from the crates, they are not living a comfortable life: The uneven floors of the hog houses have been proven to cause leg and feet deformities.
Notoriously mistreated, veal calves are often forced to wear heavy chains to keep them from becoming overactive in their stalls. The calves are also kept in near or total darkness and suffer from forced anemia, for no reason other than to keep their flesh pale and attractive.
"Battery cages," the common living space for more than 90 percent of egg-laying hens in America, provide as little as 0.6 square feet of space per hen. That is smaller than a regular sized sheet of paper.
Citing health reasons and worker comfort, a majority of U.S. farms practice tail docking, the act of removing the tails of livestock by burning, emasculating, or constricting the tail with an elastic band. This practice causes pain, stress, and sometimes infection in the cows, which is why it has been outlawed in a number of countries, such as New Zealand. However, California is the only U.S. state where tail docking is illegal.