bookmark_borderIs top-down veganism unethical?

« Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. »
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Remember how the vegetables we eat everyday are very different from their ancestors from a few centuries ago? The same is true for animals. In half a century, farmers bred increasingly large races of chicken. Here is a comparison of the size of bones for modern and ancestral chickens:

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/cms/asset/d2de8704-e027-4c4c-b56a-bf42fe2d258c/rsos180325f04.gif
Scale bar: 2 cm (source)

The leg on the left belongs to a modern broiler chicken. The one on the right belongs to a wild jungle chicken.

From the perspective of meat production, this is an improvement. From the perspective of animal suffering, things are more uncertain. Contemporary chicken are reaching pantagruelian proportions and now they have trouble walking and their legs often break under their own weight. One might even go as far as worrying this is a little bit unethical. Fortunately, there are solutions. I can think of three of them – the first two, you already know. The last one, however, I never see discussed anywhere.

1. Non-meat

The most fashionable solution now is to replace meat with plant-based construction materials that are claimed to look and taste similar to meat. My main problem is that plant-based meat is, at best, overlapping with real meat: the best-quality plant-meat is comparable to the lowest-quality meat. If you think the vegan burgers make accurate simulacra of meat, I’m afraid you are eating too much heavily processed shitty meat. We are still very far from the impossible® A5-rated wagyu, the impossible® pressed duck, the impossible® volaille de Bresse “en vessie” (which must be gently cooked in a plant-based impossible® pork bladder to be valid). As a typical Westerner, i have the opportunity to eat only about 90,000 meals in a lifetime, there is no way I’m wasting any of them on sub-delicious food. Still, this approach deserves some praise for actually existing and working, which cannot be said about the second approach –

2. Lab-grown meat

To be fair, the interest in lab-grown meat is increasing, slowly and steadily. Perhaps it will eventually catch up on sexbots. Here is a Frontiers review from last year, whose title alone drives the point home: “The Myth of Cultured Meat”. It is not that bad, really, but the current prototypes look like attempts at emulating the vegan attempts at emulating real meat. I don’t see any lab-grown marbled beef appearing in the foreseeable future.

3. Top-down vegan meat

Lab-grown meat was the bottom-up approach. Here, I will inquire into the feasibility of a top-down approach. Rather than starting from cell cultures and engineering them into a sirloin steak, I suggest starting from whole animals and using genetic engineering to remove all the things we find ethically questionable, one by one. Our end goal is, of course, to turn the live animals into warm, squishy, throbbing blocks of flesh devoid of anything that could possibly be construed as qualia. If we can give them a cubic shape for easy packaging and storage, that’s even better.

The path to success is long, but straightforward:

Perhaps the easiest, short-term solution is to make the animals insensitive to pain. We’ve known for a long time that some genetic variants in humans make pain disappear completely. The most famous one, a mutation in the gene SCN9A, was discovered on a Pakistani street performer who would literally eat burning coals and stab himself for the show (he did not live very long). Earlier this year, Moreno et al managed to make mice insensitive to pain using a CRISPR-based epigenome editing scheme (basically, they fused an inactivated Cas9 to a KRAB repressor, so it binds to the DNA just next to the SCN9A gene and inhibits transcription). As we can see from the street performer kid, disrupting the pain sensitivity pathway is totally viable, so I see no technical reason we couldn’t try that on farm animals too.

Of course, pain is not the only form of suffering. If we really want to persuade the PETA activists, we might want to make the animals permanently happy, whatever the circumstances. This is where it gets tricky. I found this genome-wide association study which identifies variants associated to subjective well-being in humans, but it’s not clear whether these variants have a direct effect on happiness, or if they just make you more likely to be rich and handsome. In the later case, it would not be particularly useful for our next-gen farm animals (it can’t hurt, though). It is pretty clear that some genetic variants have a direct effect on personality traits like depression and anxiety, so maybe there is room for action. To optimize happiness in farm animals, we would of course need a way to measure the animals’ subjective well-being, so that’s another obstacle in the way of convincing the vegans (vegans, I’ve been told, can be extremely picky). Also, there is another problem: if we find a way to make animals permanently happy, we might be tempted to apply it to ourselves instead, and then, nobody will care about factory farming anymore.

If removing pain and sadness is not enough, the next logical step is to get rid of consciousness entirely. Any chemical used to induce coma is probably not an option, since we don’t want people to fall into a coma themselves after eating lunch (I’m already close enough to a comatose state after lunch with regular food, let’s not make this worse). A more radical approach is just to remove as much of the nervous system as possible. In humans, there is a rare condition called anencephaly where a fœtus develops without most of the brain, and in particular without a neocortex. It is pretty clear that these kids have no consciousness, yet they can survive for a few hours or even a few days. There is also evidence that some mutations or recessive variants can trigger anencephaly, so the prospect of developing animal lineages without a cerebrum does not seem completely impossible. A major challenge, of course, would be to extend the life of the organism for more than a few hours. Moreover, it would require a lot of effort from the marketing department to make such a monstruosity appealing to consumers.

Sadly, this will not be enough for most vegans. Most of the vegans I personally know put the edibility frontier somewhere between the harp sponge Chondrocladia lyra and the egg-yolk jellyfish Phacellophora camtschatica, that is, anything with a nervous system is formally off-limit. This criterion does not make things easy for our master plan: we can remove as much of the nervous system as we can, I can’t think of any way to get rid of the cardiac automatism or the part of the nervous system in charge of respiratory function. Unless, of course, we dare enter into cyborg territory. Is the world ready for alimentary cyborgs? The future is full of surprises.

Conclusion

Let’s be honest, this post started as fun speculation and gratuitous vegan trolling, but I am actually very serious about the central point. GMOs are mainly discussed in terms of cost, environmental impact or health properties, yet very rarely as an avenue to reduce animal suffering. Many of the ideas discussed here are still beyond what is possible with our current understanding of genetics. Still, we can already identify some interesting research paths that are just waiting to be explored. So, what makes this approach so disturbing? As often, the moral questions turn out more difficult than the technical barriers. The major obstacle is not so much the actual genetic engineering, but the lack of good metrics for success – how do you even measure suffering to begin with? On the other hand, if the outcome of a problem cannot be measured or even defined in any meaningful way, maybe it does not matter that much, after all. I would be happy to hear what ethical vegans think about the general approach. What would it take for a top-down reduction of animal suffering to be acceptable to you?

bookmark_border90% true: Agriculture from the Future

This post is only 90% true. Among these ten items, one was deliberately made-up. Each items includes links to sources, so you can easily check if they are true. Can you find the fake item? (More information about the series here.)

  1. Insect-resistant, genetically-modified maize have been cultivated in Spain and Portugal for more than twenty years. A 2019 study analyzed the environmental effects: aside from the obvious decrease in pesticide pollution and water savings, there was a measurable drop in greenhouse-gas emissions. This is because diesel-powered tractors were no longer needed to spray the insecticides. The downside of insect-resistant GMOs is that new pests will eventually emerge after a few decades, just like they do with chemical pesticides. Biotechnology could also have an impact on climate change in a more direct manner – for example, engineering the gut microbiota of cows to minimize the production of methane by cattle, or genetically modifying poplars for wood production so they no longer release isoprene, a pollutant that increases the air concentration of ozone and methane.
  2. You might think that millions of years of evolution would have fully optimized photosynthesis, but it is not quite the case. Many crops are much less efficient than what would be possible in theory. Multiple genetic strategies are possible to increase the yield of crops, for example to increase their carbohydrate production. In soybeans, rice and wheat, the process of photorespiration diverts part of the energy obtained from photosynthesis. Using tobacco plants as a model, researchers were able to increase biomass by more than 20% in field trials, just by optimizing the expression levels of various photosynthetic components.
  3. Improving the nutritional qualities of crops through genetic modification is also promising, especially in third-world countries were malnutrition is rampant. The “golden rice”, a variant of rice with a high level of vitamin A was developed more than fifteen years ago. So far, it has not been widely adopted (in part due to efforts from Greenpeace to undermine it). More recently, by enhancing cassava with an iron transporter and the iron-storage protein ferritin, it was possible to increase the plant’s iron and zinc content by about ten-fold.
  4. Even without genetic modification, the fruits and vegetables we eat are very different from what is found in nature, owing to centuries of breeding. This is visible in still-life paintings from the Renaissance where fruits are on display. If you are wondering what vegetables looked like in their natural, not-genetically-modified forms, here are pictures of wild-type bananas, wild-type corn, and wild-type carrots1This last links points to a website called World Carrot Museum, with the tagline “discover the power of carrots”. That might not be an academic source, but I am sure we can trust them for all our carrot questions..
  5. Since humans started agriculture thousands of years ago, the selection of plants by breeding has completely changed our food habits. This, in turn, put an evolutionary selection pressure on humans themselves. The textbook example is lactase persistence, when the domestication of cows gave a great advantage to humans who could digest cow milk. Now, according to some research, modern humans have evolved some kind of dependency to selected plants. That is, if all the domesticated plants were to suddenly go back to their wild state, most humans would have trouble finding food they can digest.
  6. Starting in the 1950s, exposing crops to radiation became a popular way to generate new mutant varieties. The typical “gamma garden” design involves a circular field with a Cobalt-60 gamma ray source in the middle. This way, seeds are exposed to a gradient of radioactivity – the plants near the center usually die, the peripheral plants are unaltered, and interesting things can happen in the intermediate range. Needless to say, gamma rays produce mutations all over the genome, and large chromosomal rearrangements are frequently observed. Despite being much messier than genetic modification techniques like CRISPR, plants obtained through “atomic gardening” are not legally considered GMOs. They may even be accepted in organic food.
  7. There are no Terminator seeds. The legend goes that some greedy GMO company sold seeds that would turn sterile after the first generation, so that farmers could not sow them and would have to buy it again from the company every year. The underlying technology does exist, but it was never used in any commercialized product. That being said, farmers buying new seeds every year is nothing new (and not restricted to GMOs): for decades they have relied on hybrids from inbred plants, which have desirable properties but can be sowed only once since their offspring would be too heterogeneous.
  8. Local production has become an important criterion for consumers. Somehow, people are starting to realize there might be something wrong about shipping fruits and vegetables from the other side of the planet. In general, the more local, the greener. But there is a loophole: not all places are equally fertile. According to a study from 2020, only one third of the world population could sustainably feed on food produced in a radius of 100 km. In some cases, outsourcing food production to more fertile grounds could allow to spare land (i.e. growing forests), which is a good way to sequester GHG. In fact, a recent paper advocated for combining high-yield farming in some spots with land-sparing in other spots, as the optimal strategy for environment-friendly agriculture.
  9. According to large surveys of representative samples in the USA, France and Germany, extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most (this is one of the best titles for a scientific article).
  10. Like cellphones, micro-wave ovens and every other new technology, GMOs have been accused of causing cancer2For some reason, it’s always cancer. I have never met anybody who feared GMOs would cause pica or Capgras syndrome, although that would be pretty funny.. And technically speaking, yes, they do – but just as much as regular food. Carcinogenic substances can be found in small amounts in all kinds of food, e.g. in red meat, cereals, apple juice3In most cases, the amount is negligibly small. The only association that I would take seriously is red meat.… In fact, it is even possible to engineer plants so that they protect against cancer, like this broccoli.

Could you find the false item? If you have doubts, feel free to discuss about it in the comment section.