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Genetically Modified Misery – From Person To Machine

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You only have to take a quick look at some articles relating to genetic modification in dairy cows to get a strong indication of how property status leads society to make assumptions about the value of sentient life. It’s almost as if the rhetoric of animals as property in societal discourse, legitimises the underlying assumption that these particular beings, bred for a particular purpose, have only that value to which humans grant them for the given purpose. Likewise with beings bred for the pet industry, the animals we fetishise still have only the value that humans grant them for the given purpose. The work of private property theorist, John Locke, has been entrenched and marinated into the fabric of society to such a degree that, it seems to transcend common law to the point of being part of western-culture.

If you were to ask a random person in the street what they thought the difference was between ‘pets’ and ‘farm animals,’ the chances are you would be told the former are for our companionship, and the latter are for food. That very disturbing assumption – which to most people in our society would seem like common sense – is founded on hundreds of years of animal property ownership, where the owners of that animal property have made value-judgements on their animals for the given purpose of that ownership. Those value-judgments seem to have been part of human society for a very, very long time, and they go towards helping us make sense of the initial brick walls we may come across when engaging with non-vegans. They are set deep in the stone of our conventional wisdom fortress. And yes, the hyperbole is warranted – breaking down society’s conventional wisdom is like a metaphorical assault on a stone fortress. On the individual level in advocacy, once you break down the main gate – via dispelling the conventional assumptions – it’s smooth sailing.

You may be wondering why I’m talking about this, given the title of this article – but it’s very much related. It helps explain the disconnected language the author uses in this particular article on genetically modified dairy cows. After reading it, it seemed horrendous to me to think that anyone could read it and consider it normal. However, when you consider that the author – and the non-vegan readers of the article – are part of a conventional wisdom that has already dictated the value of the animals in question, we can start to understand how such disconnects occur. The entrenched value-judgement against the animal – in this case, dairy cows – alters perception from that of a moral person, to one of a machine.

The star of the article is a poor soul named “Chief.” A bull who, back in the 1960’s and during the birth of artificial insemination, was exploited for his sperm – sperm that is now touted as being responsible for the $30 billion dollars worth of growth the milk production industry has seen over the last three decades. The article boasts of how Chief had “great genes for milk,” and from the 1960’s to present day, has had 16,000 daughters, 500,000 granddaughters, and over 2 million great-granddaughters. The article goes on to explain how Chief had a single copy of a deadly mutation, which became responsible for 500,000 miscarriages and cost the dairy industry $420 million dollars in losses. I know nothing of genetics, but my understanding from the article is that there were many of Chief’s descendants who inherited two identical copies of the same Chief gene; his sperm was used to inseminate his descendants, who were already carrying his genes. Cows with one working copy of the gene, and one faulty copy of the gene, were not affected by the mutation and were born. Cows with two faulty copies of the gene – one derived from Chief’s sperm, the other derived from the mother who was descended from Chief – died in the womb.

Despite this mutation causing the dairy industry to experience significant losses, Chief is heralded as the single most influential bull in recent history – the losses were nothing compared to the overall gain. According to the article, Chief was “genetically blessed and born at the right time and in the right place.” This of course, referring to the rise of artificial insemination, which meant that Chief’s sperm could be harvested, frozen, and sold. Dairy farmers were able to selectively buy semen based on the “reputation” of the bull that produced it and today, 14 percent of all DNA in Holstein cows (the most popular dairy breed) come from Chief’s genes alone. Artificial insemination, coupled with the exploitation of Chief, has quadrupled the amount of milk that a cow will produce. Genetics has apparently “transformed breeding in the dairy industry,” meaning that dairy cows “will become better and better optimised milk-making machines.”

The fact that the author of the article has given Chief a name, or refers to Chief as a “him,” smacks of nothing more than mockery. As property, valued by humans for a given purpose, these animals will never be viewed as anything more than machines. And from this vantage, it is easy to see why welfare measures will never do anything other than increase the efficiency of those machines – it would make no sense sink any more resources than necessary into running them. Property, to remain property, will be valued as the owner sees fit for the given purpose. An example of which, again, can be seen in the final section of the article, where the author states that because Chief’s genes were “so good,” the downsides were not relevant in the “intense race to produce more milk.” In other words, the 500,000 pre-birth calf deaths were no different to say, the monetary damage a wealthy logistics firm might experience if it has been a particularly bad year for truck accidents on the road. Cows or car parts – property is property. Present day, dairy cow breeders apparently now go for a more “balanced selection of traits,” in order to account for “factors like cow health.” And why would they do this? Because cows are sentient beings that will cost the dairy industry a lot of money in veterinary bills if they get sick. It better safeguards the monetary value of the property to consider a factor such as health.

To those advocates who believe that we can fulfil our obligations to animals while they remain our property, they neglect to understand that value-judgments made against a piece of property will always be based on human perspective. No matter how ostensibly “good” those judgements seem to us – it is inherently unjust. The mere presence of a property value-judgment made by humans against another being, is denying the existence of that beings own value. It strips the being in question of any authority to value their own life as they see fit. The life of a sentient being is not something that humans have any authority to put a property value on. Even if the life of the animal in question was “good” – as many advocates like to suggest is possible – the mere fact that it is us granting the animal property that given value, represents the perpetuation of a hierarchy of oppression. We have no right or position of power to grant another sentient being anything. We simply need to stop treating them as our resources and to stop assuming that sentient beings are the sort of beings suitable to be relegated to property in the first place.

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