The future of meat

February 28, 2012

Over at Gizmodo there is a brief article entitled “The Future of Farming is Brain-Dead Chickens?” about a provocative art project created by an architecture student at the Royal College of Art. The project is described as follows:

Architecture student André Ford has presented a very radical solution to increase the efficiency and humaneness in raising poultry. Under his plan, birds would have their frontal cortexes surgically severed, rendering the animals permanently unconscious with no zero sensory input while maintaining their lower brain functions—breathing and such—so that they continue to grow.

The form and function of a chicken plant would change drastically as well. The birds would be suspended and immobilized from hanging racks. Their feet would be removed (not going to be doing much walking in their state) and the animals would receive nutrients through an esophageal tube. A second tube would remove waste—Matrix-style. The birds could literally be stacked—quadrupling the density from one chicken every 10 square feet to four—quietly growing until they’re large enough to be harvested.

The idea of brain-dread chickens may be great for an art project or a work of science fiction, but to present it as a proposal for “increasing the efficiency and humaneness of raising poultry” is ridiculous. First of all, given the costs and difficulties of performing brain surgery on each and every chicken, the proposal would decrease rather than increase the efficiency of raising chickens and feeding people chicken meat. Secondly, is it really more humane to remove an animal’s brain in order to treat it as a physical object than it is just to treat the animal as a physical object, which is what is currently done on factory farms. One way to answer this question is to ask the same question of humans: would it be “humane” to treat humans as objects if we first remove their frontal cortex so that they would feel no pain (or anything else) following the surgery?  The question hardly deserves an answer. Third, the proposal to create brain-dead chickens does nothing to eliminate or alleviate any of the other major problems associated with the factory-farming of chickens, such as the energy inefficiencies in turning grain into meat, the environmental waste from chicken farms, and the infectious diseases that polutry farms can generate.

The most obvious way to tackle the ethical, environmental, and health problems posed by factory farms is to eliminate them by refraining from eating meat (or at least drastically reducing the amount of meat that is eaten). The only problem with that simple and elegant solution is that humans are creatures of habit and bad habits die slowly. For this reason some people have dreamed of technical solutions to the problems of factory farms. And it just so happens that there is one on the horizon, although it is not brain-dead chickens. It’s lab-grown meat.

Already 80 years ago Winston Churchill recognized that it was absurd to raise whole chickens only to consume a few of their parts, and he imagined that the day would come when the parts could be grown individually. Evidently, that day is just around the corner. With recent advances in stem-cell technology, some researchers have been busy trying to grow meat in the lab, and they predict that the first commercially available cultured-meat will be available within about five years. That’s chicken meat, not from normal or brainless chickens, but from no chickens at all, and that’s about as good as technological progress gets. You can read about it here or watch the following brief video interview with one of the experts in the field.

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