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Why we SHOULDN’T genetically ‘disenhance’ animals

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Last month, an Oxford student won a prize in Practical Ethics for his essay, “Why We Should Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms”. In the essay, Jonathan Latimer argues that in order to make factory farming more ethical and to reduce the suffering of animals, we should genetically engineer them to not feel pain. Instead of, you know, not putting animals in the position to experience that pain in the first place.

Latimer describes disenhancement as “genetic modification that removes an animal’s capacity to feel pain” and frames it as a practical response to concerns over the welfare of farmed animals. It would mean having the ability to rob animals of their freedom, bodily functions, children, and bodies with the added security that they wouldn’t feel it from a measurable pain perspective. Let’s not ignore the psychological trauma animals endure.

Defences of Latimer’s position look to Peter Singer. Singer has argued that animals have an interest in avoiding suffering and that if disenhancement reduces their capacity to feel pain, then ethically, it should be considered. Similarly, Singer believes that if animals live “good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm,” then it’s not unethical to kill and use them. Latimers position falls under the same flawed thinking which does not question whether or not humans have a right to use animals in the first place.

While Latimer’s imaginative practices have yet to take place, the animal agriculture industry is no stranger to modifying the animals currently in production. Practices like growing chickens to abnormal sizes to the point where they can’t stand on their own, clipping their beaks so that they can’t peck naturally and engineering cows, sheep and goats to produce specific proteins in their milk are just a few examples that have been taking place for decades.

Economically, genetically modifying animals makes sense for farm owners. Their ultimate goal is to raise their animals as efficiently as possible in order to produce and sell a maximal amount of animal products. Frankly, the reason there’s no regard for the animals well-being is because unhappy animals sell for the same price. Further to that, this meddling also presents the opportunity to make a new label to join the cage-free brigade of lies – pain-free animal products.

There is a slim chance Latimer genuinely has the wellbeing of animals in mind when making this case. However, if this practice were to be adopted by the animal agriculture industry, the intent would likely fall in line with the approach the industry currently takes with animal modifications – done with the sole intent to produce more products for more money. It likely would be easier to farm animals that aren’t resistant to painful practices. The real issue at hand is that the animals are being denied their right to freedom from use.

Another defence Latimer applies to his proposition is that disability isn’t inherently bad, drawing on examples of human disability. While it is important not to frame disability as negative, it’s also imperative to recognize that injuring a person or causing disability without consent is unethical. Latimer argues that “if the human eye had evolved to cause intolerable pain upon contact with light, then we would not consider blindness a disability, but perhaps a benefit”. Say this were true, it would still be immoral to intentionally inflict blindness on other humans. To be comfortable, or in this case enthusiastic, about doing this to animals begs the question; would we ever promote the “disenhancement” of human-beings in order to perform endless unpaid labour for the profit of others?

What Latimer doesn’t grasp is that suffering goes beyond physical pain and that regardless of suffering, farming animals is unethical. Creating bandaid “solutions” to ethical problems we’ve created doesn’t address the issue at hand. No matter what way we swing it, we simply don’t have the right to infringe on the rights of others. Being fair to animals means going vegan.

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