Pimping for Farmers

The feast of St Francis of Assisi on the fourth of next month will also be World Animal Day, “an international day of action for animal rights and welfare”. It’s good to see that this anniversary is noticed and promoted in one of the UK Parliament’s Early Day Motions, the one numbered 696. Although these EDMs rarely turn into actual parliamentary debates, they usefully publicize the concerns and special interests of the groups of MPs who sign them. So far, just 23 MPs have signed this EDM 696, but it was only posted in July, immediately before Parliament’s summer recess. In its final words, the EDM “encourages everyone to show their support for animals in the lead up to and on World Animal Day itself.”

Quite puzzlingly, six of these same MPs have also signed EDM 686, titled ‘Pig genomes decoded’, which takes a wholly opposite view of how we should relate to animals. The purpose of this EDM is to congratulate Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute on its part in establishing “the whole genetic make-up of pigs”. This is an achievement which will “enable more accurate use of gene-editing technologies to develop pigs with desired characteristics”; it will also “enhance biomedical research in which pigs are used as models to study human health”: two new ways of not showing support for pigs, then. The work was a collaboration involving “40 scientists from 15 laboratories in the UK and US”. It was led by Roslin in the UK and, in the US, by the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska, part of the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS for short: readers may enjoy recalling that the research establishment featured in Richard Adams’ novel The Plague Dogs has the initials ARSE).

Roslin itself is a ‘meat-animal research centre’, but it avoids the crudely definite  word ‘meat’ in its publicity. Habitually it uses some variety of the collocation “animal and human”, as if we’re all in this together. Thus its declared mission is “to enhance the lives of animals and humans through world-class research in animal biology”. MARC isn’t nearly so tactful: its more expansive mission statement speaks of “high priority problems for the US beef, sheep, and swine industries . . . efficiency of production . . . a lean, high quality, safe product . . . the production and agri-business sectors . . . improving animal production.” There is no mention of animal welfare or animal health, still less any reference to that dangerously evocative theme “the lives of animals”. And this establishment, with which Roslin has been collaborating for at least ten years, has indeed no tradition of interest in animal welfare. As one of its scientists said in response to a complaint that the pigs were being over-crowded, it’s a “non-issue”.

The implications of this attitude were thoroughly exposed a few years ago in the New York Times by Michael Moss (the journalist who had made public in 2009 the true nature of ‘pink slime’ as a constituent in processed meat). He described in particular the various MARC projects aimed at increasing the profitability of cows, pigs, and sheep as procreators, and the consequences in animal suffering. There was the failed Twinning Project for cows, which force-raised the incidence of twin births, even triplets, but also dramatically raised the proportion of frail, deformed, or dead offspring, and created nightmare scenes at parturition, a hard enough business when only one calf has to be brought out (the Center pursued this project for 30 years before giving up). Then there was “pasture lambing”, a project to breed ewes who would produce and care for their lambs alone and unaided (no costly husbandry required!) wherever in the widespread Center lands they happened to be. Deaths of these purposely neglected new-borns – from starvation, hypothermia, predation – were up to three times the normally expected number. In the case of pigs, various gruesome operations on the wombs and ovaries of sows were tried, as a means to increase the numbers of piglets born and the frequency of pregnancy; for, as the pig-research company Agriness says by way of cajoling insufficiently ruthless farmers, “The difference between what could have been produced by every sow and what was actually produced means money lost . . . What about you? Do you know the productive potential of the sows on your farm?”

It may be that animal welfare at the Meat Animal Research Center has improved a little since 2015, the year of the New York Times exposé. There is now at least an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, in line with other research establishments, though farm animal research is largely exempted from the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act which governs research practices in the USA, a fact of which the MARC has for years been taking full advantage. There is new accommodation for the pigs, albeit a grim concrete-floored barn with no sign of straw or of anything for the pigs to do except loiter. But a photograph on the MARC web-site proudly shows 13 or 14 piglets suckling a sow (the natural number in a litter would be about ten). They’re all on a metal grid.

In short, there’s been no change to the conception of science as force which animates this institution. After all, as its sponsor-establishment ARS says, food-production is “a continual evolutionary battle of humans versus insects, mites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes and contaminants.” So it’s a war, and science is our weaponry. (Aptly enough, the land on which MARC operates formerly belonged to the military, which mainly used it as an ammunition storage site.)

Accordingly the research on reproduction being conducted there is altogether invasive in its thinking and practice. It includes the study of “factors that influence puberty, estrus, sexual behaviour, ovulation, fertilization, implantation, embryonic and fetal mortality, parturition, and early post-natal mortality”. The hands-on, or hands-in, “research efforts”, we’re further told, “involve regulation of follicular and testicular development, ovulation rate and sperm production, embryo and fetal relationships with uterine function, and identification of quantitative trait loci in both cattle and swine.”

This grotesque rummaging in the generative organs of animals makes the old-fashioned trade of pimping seem a healthy and life-enhancing activity. MARC says that its research into reproduction “includes both sexes”, and this is true of the practitioners as well as the practised-upon. Both men and women do this work: it’s hard to know which is the uglier concept.

Anyway, supposing one needed enlightening on this point, it’s clear that the attitude towards farm animals which Ruth Harrison challenged all those years ago in her book Animal Machines (1964) lives on in good health and funds. More than that, its scope is constantly expanding. In the UK there is going to be a Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock, which will provide funds from government and industry for “state-of-the-art facilities” at several research institutions. For Roslin this will make possible a new Large Animal [note, not ‘meat animal’] Research and Imaging Facility. This will represent (so its media staff say in their PR frenzy) “a quantum leap in infrastructure available to the animal sciences innovation pipeline in the UK”. Roslin will also be able to set up an Informatics Hub, which will propagandize and train farmers and others “in their delivery of genomic improvement”. The ARS publication Transforming Agriculture (2018) shows equivalently grandiose ambitions for the USA.

It’s a common defence of animal research that it accounts for a very small number of animal lives compared to meat-eating. For instance, the organisation Speaking of Research, by way of introduction to the recently published 2019 UK statistics, puts chicken and fishes at 90% of the total, cattle, sheep, and pigs at 1%, and medical research at 0% – meaning, I suppose, invisibly few. (Most of the remainder is wild-life killed by cats, another frequently cited point of comparison, though how it helps to justify animal research is unclear.) But that 91% has itself been a product of animal research. As Ruth Harrison wrote in Animal Machines, her 1964 study of industrial farming, “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.”

Nor can it be said that the research is merely corrective of problems, making an existing unpleasant practice more efficient; as we’ve seen, it’s much more ambitious than that. The leader of the pig genome project at Roslin, Professor Alan Archibald, is quoted in Farmers Weekly (4 July) as follows: “Pork is the most popular of all meats [really?] and, with a growing global population, we need to improve the sustainability of food production.” In so far as this non-sequitur means anything, it expresses the intention of promoting pork in the world’s diet. And in other projects Roslin likewise promotes other meats, including chicken and fish (as aquaculture).

To claim that animal research uses comparatively few animals is therefore humbug. It is present and instrumental at the conception, birth, expedited growth, and premature death of all the billions of animals accounted for by industrialized agriculture. I know that it’s been said in this blog often before, but this is one of the most culpable tragedies of animal research, that it is thus constantly and aggressively shoring up a diet which we now know very well is bad for the health of humans, bad for the planet, and bad for the animals, wild as well as confined, who have to pay for it with their lives.

I wish that EDM 696 had mentioned some of this (EDMs are allowed up to 250 words). It should at least have included the word ‘vegan’, last used with ethical purpose in an EDM twelve years ago. Still, such as it is, please write and tell your MP to sign it!

Notes and references:

The aims and events of World Animal Day this year are described here: https://www.worldanimalday.org.uk/. The Early Day Motions can be seen at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57220/world-animal-day and at https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/57211/pig-genomes-decoded.

The Roslin Institute mission, and information about its new facilities, are quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/roslin. The cloned sheep Dolly was another Roslin achievement, featured in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/remembering-dolly-the-sheep/

MARC (full name the Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center) is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/. Its research into reproduction is featured at https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/clay-center-ne/marc/rru/

The New York Times article of 19 January 2015, titled ‘U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit’, can be read online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/dining/animal-welfare-at-risk-in-experiments-for-meat-industry.html?_r=0

Agriness is quoted from its web-site here: https://www.agriness.com/en/piglets-2/

The Agricultural Research Service’s publication Transforming Agriculture was published in 2018 as its ‘2018-20 Strategic Plan’. The quotation about “a continual evolutionary battle” is taken from p.6, and the whole thing can be read here: https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/00000000/Plans/2018-2020%20ARS%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf

Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines is quoted from the 2013 edition (CAB International), pp.37-8.

The article in Farmers Weekly about the pig genome project can be accessed here: https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/pigs/medical-breakthrough-could-help-farmers-breed-healthier-pigs.

Remembering Dolly the Sheep

The sheep called Dolly, the first viable clone to be made from an adult cell, was born at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh twenty years ago. Her birth was certainly a remarkable achievement, and the anniversary is understandably being celebrated this year at Roslin and elsewhere. Dolly herself died of Dollylung disease in 2003, and was donated to the National Museum of Scotland. There she was stuffed – it’s still done, evidently – and the result has recently been put into a new display in the Museum’s Science and Technology galleries, with associated salesmanship (“she’s a science superstar and one of our most iconic objects”). There she’ll stand, thus insulted, for the remainder of her material existence.

The research at the Roslin Institute, as at the Pirbright Institute spoken of in the previous post, is said to be “focussed on the health and welfare of animals”. In both cases this is largely a euphemism for new and better ways of putting animals to human use. Thus the Dolly research had as its main aim to breed animals which would produce human medicines in their milk. According to an anniversary article on the subject in last month’s Scientific American, “interest in that idea has declined with the rise of inexpensive synthetic chemicals” [‘Twenty Years after Dolly the Sheep Led the Way – Where is Cloning Now?’, 5 July 2016]. However, cloning apparently continues to interest people who make money from livestock. The same article quotes one cell biologist as saying “The benefits genomically for production excellence and driving up production parameters is very good”. In so far as one can see through that cloud of words, the meaning seems to be that cloning will make animals yet more useful and profitable to humans.

But whatever the immediate applications of the cloning success at Roslin, it was undoubtedly a momentous advance in science’s long-term ‘men like gods’ project (to use the phrase of H.G.Wells). And it’s in this connection that the choice of name for the sheep is somewhat ominous.

The sheep’s laboratory name, for purposes of identification, seems to have been ‘6LLS’. It was a very suitably opaque name for an animal whose identity was uncertain in a revolutionary way, and who would be making way for the exploitation of further millions of de-individualized sheep, cows, pigs, and others. It hints, too, in its suggestion of a series, at all the messy and painful failures which formed the history to that one successfully cloned animal (and which evidently continue to characterize cloning projects today).

However, for public use, the brilliant and ingenious scientific minds leading the research hit upon the more saleable name ‘Dolly’, facetiously connecting the mammary gland cell, from which the sheep was made, to the busty singer Dolly Parton. You couldn’t call this joke, if such it is (or leer perhaps), improper; it’s only puerile. While the research comes from the highest reaches of science, the joke comes straight from behind the bike sheds of human culture. An apocryphal extension to the joke, also enjoyed by these science giants, is that Dolly Parton’s agent, on being asked for permission to use the name, said that there was “no such thing as baaad publicity”. If the Roslin team’s science had been of a piece with its larger culture, as suggested by these forays into life outside the laboratory, they’d have been making stink bombs rather than clones.

Perhaps it would have been better if they had been. In such institutions as Roslin they are making new worlds which we shall all, including of course the animals, be obliged to be part of. In that sense, they are men and women like gods. It’s worth wondering how fit they are, or can be induced to be, for that elevation.

When the Liberal politician Norman Baker spoke to a VERO audience in Oxford last year [see VERO’s web-site, at http://www.vero.org.uk/events.asp], he began by expressing concern about the moral or emotional immaturity of many scientists. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, for which Mr Baker once had responsibility at the Home Office, is one way in which the larger national culture, such as it is, tries to keep scientists within the pale of its own hard-won humane values. Unfortunately we can’t rely on politicians to help in this sort of way; most of them are as easily dazzled by the prestige and futuristic promises of scientists as any other people. Here, for instance, are the words of a member of the 2001 House of Lords Select Committee set up to examine the working of that 1986 Act. He is commenting on the idea that animal researchers might respond to criticism by making more effort to explain and justify their work:

I think a lot of it [i.e. the criticism] is nothing to do with science but is to do with the sentimentality of the population as a whole … about dear little animals which is coupled with the sort of nature programmes which tend to encourage that kind of approach.

This helpful prompt allows the scientist giving evidence to the Committee at that moment to speak with modern science’s characteristically absolutist voice:

If I may just add, my Lord Chairman, I think there has become an increasing gulf and disconnect between the necessary exploitation of animals by man and this fluffy image.

The noble spokesperson for the national conscience in this case was a church minister, whose priestly caste used once to enjoy, for good or ill, the cultural authority which now belongs to science. The respondent giving evidence, and succinctly putting the case for scientific pragmatism, was a representative of Huntingdon Life Sciences, and is now Director of Veterinary Services in the laboratories of Oxford University.

Of course it’s too large a question to encompass in a blog-post, but by way of contrary illustration, here is a reminder of the sort of dis-interested attention to the living (including human) world on which Western culture at its best has always been founded. It’s the sculptor Henry Moore, explaining how he came to make his own studies of sheep:

These sheep often wandered up close to the window of the little studio I was working Sheep 1in. I began to be fascinated by them, and to draw them. At first I saw them as rather shapeless balls of wool with a head and four legs. Then I began to realize that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had its own character.

The art critic Kenneth Clark shows how art of this kind acts as a moral education:

We expect Henry Moore to give a certain nobility to everything he draws; but more surprising is the way in which these drawings express a feeling of real affection for their subject. It is no exaggeration to say that many of his sheep are drawn with love … We do not think of the brilliant technique. We think only of the sheep, and we grow to have an affection for them almost equal to that of Moore himself.

Of course I don’t offer drawings of sheep, or comments on them, or any of the art, literature and philosophy which constitute the ‘humanities’, as an alternative to the science of genetics. What they are, or ought to be, is the setting or condition for that and every other science. This is how the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch puts the case:

It is totally misleading to speak … of ‘two cultures’, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if they were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part … We are men and we are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words.

Scientists have no special privileges in that discussion, or oughtn’t to have, and its quality and progress will be far more important to us in the long run than any of the wonders with which they meanwhile astonish the world.

 

References:

The official description of the Roslin Institute is from http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/research/institutes/.

The Scientific American article can be found at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/20-years-after-dolly-the-sheep-led-the-way-where-is-cloning-now/.

For the cloning and naming of Dolly, as recounted by the people involved, see http://www.nature.com/news/dolly-at-20-the-inside-story-on-the-world-s-most-famous-sheep-1.20187.

The exchange from the House of Lords enquiry is from evidence taken on 10 July, question and answers 334 and 335, accessible at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldanimal.htm.

Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook is published by Thames and Hudson (1980).

The Iris Murdoch quotation comes from The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970, p.34. Other quotations are from the relevant web-sites.

The photograph of Dolly is used by courtesy of the Roslin Institute, the University of Edinburgh, U.K.