Should We Genetically “Disenhance” Animals on Factory Farms to Improve Their “Welfare”?

hens in a tree
UPC rescued battery-caged hens. Photo by Susan Rayfield

“Why We Should Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms”

By Jonathan Latimer

“Disenhancement is a genetic modification that removes an animal’s capacity to feel pain. Scientists hope to be able to do this without inflicting any pain at all. So, disenhancement promises to reduce suffering in factory-farmed animals by removing their capacity to feel pain caused by their terrible environment. I will defend the process of genetic ‘disenhancement’ of animals used for factory farming. I suggest that disenhancement will significantly increase the quality of life for animals in factory farms, and that this benefit is robust against objections that disenhancement is harmful to animals and that it fails to address the immorality of factory farming.”

— University of Oxford student Jonathan Latimer. “Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why We Should Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms,” March 5, 2018.

“Why We Should NOT Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms”

By Karen Davis, PhD

I reject the claim that genetically destroying an animal’s ability to experience “pain,” in order to fit the animal into a human-contrived system of abuse, constitutes an ethical solution to the suffering of these animals. Consider the fact that:

Suffering involves more than the ability to feel pain. Suffering refers to a wound, injury, trauma or harm sustained by a sentient individual whether or not the individual experiences the injury in the form of pain per se. For example, a brain concussion or a malignant tumor may not be experienced by the individual until the disease has progressed. Destroying a creature’s brain, nervous system and other mind and body parts necessarily inflicts suffering on that creature, in this case, to fit helpless animals into a cruel system of commercial confinement.

To de-wing, de-brain and otherwise amputate a part of an animal’s very self in order to fit the animal into an abusive system, and then seek to justify the harm as being performed for the animal’s benefit, represents an ultimate lack of respect for the victim of an enterprise that presumably few would embrace if, instead of chickens or other nonhuman beings, the proposed recipients were human beings. One matter of concern is the likely survival of memory in the mutilated creature of who he or she was before the mutilation was inflicted, as in the case of phantom limb pain.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks discussed the persistence of what he called “emotional memory” in people suffering from amnesia who have lost the ability to connect and recall the daily events of their lives, but who nevertheless appear to have “deep emotional memories or associations . . . in the limbic system and other regions of the brain where emotional memories are represented.”

The consciousness of other animals including birds is similarly rooted in and shaped by emotional memory. Birds possess limbic systems and other regions of the brain that give rise to experience in much the same way as the human cerebral cortex. Scientists cite neurological evidence that the amputated stump of a debeaked bird continues to discharge abnormal nerves in fibers running from the beak stump for weeks after beak trimming, similar to what happens in human amputees. A “memory” of the amputated beak part persists in the brain, beak, and facial sensations, even after healing has occurred.

Scientists also cite the persistence of “ancestral memories” in factory-farmed chickens who, though they have never personally experienced the ground under their feet, show the same drive, given the chance, to scratch the soil for food as do their jungle-fowl relatives who spend hours scratching away at the leaves of the forest floor to reach the tiny bamboo seeds they so love.

Perhaps these deeply structured memory formations, retentions, and ineffable networks of knowledge in the body and brain of a factory-farmed chicken give rise to “phantom limbic memories”– to subjective, embodied experiences in which even dismembered or mutilated body parts awaken a distant memory of who he or she really is, or was. Wingless, beakless, and brain-damaged, do the chickens recall their wholeness in the phantom limbic soul of themselves? And if they do, are such memories of their essential identity, experienced as a compensation or a curse?

We have become accustomed, through the environmental movement, to think of species extinction as the worst fate that can befall a sentient organism. But the chicken’s doom, engineered by humanity, is not to become extinct, but to proliferate endlessly in agony.


This topic is addressed in Karen Davis’s article “Chicken-Human Relationships: From Procrustean Genocide to Empathic Anthropomorphism” published in Spring Journal, edited by Gay Bradshaw, and in Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, edited by John Sanbonmatsu under the title “Procrustean Solutions to Animal Identity and Welfare Problems.”

Hen fitted with lenses with eyes forced open to illustrate lenses
Hen fitted with lenses and eyes closed
These hens were fitted with red contact lenses for a student project in the poultry unit at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA in the 1990s. There is no cruelty that animal agribusiness will not inflict on its victims and call it “welfare.”
“Ethics” of Evisceration: Destroying the Being of a Bird for “Better Welfare”

The question has been asked whether the suffering of industrially-raised chickens could be scientifically eliminated. What if scientists could create chickens and other farmed animals whose “adjustment” to pathogenicity consisted in their inability to experience their own existence? In the 1990s, an engineer predicted that the future of chicken and egg production would come to resemble “industrial-scale versions of the heart-lung machines that brain-dead human beings need a court order to get unplugged from.” As long as they don’t “feel” anything, is it ethical to do this to chickens?

Agribusiness philosopher Paul Thompson argued that if blind chickens “don’t mind” being crowded together in confinement as much as do chickens who can see, it would “improve animal welfare” to breed blind chickens. A breeder of featherless chickens in Israel claimed “welfare” benefits for naked chickens on factory farms, despite the fact that feathers help to protect the birds’ delicate skin from injuries and infections, which is all the more necessary in an environment thick with aerial pollution and ammoniated, fecal-soaked floors. Philosopher Peter Singer, asked if he would consider it ethical to engineer a “brainless bird,” grown strictly for meat, said he would consider it “an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling.”

But would it? What if the chicken’s brain could be scientifically expunged? What if the elements of memory, instinct, sensation and emotion could be eliminated and a brainless chicken constructed? In the UK, an architecture student named Andre Ford proposed what he called the “Headless Chicken Solution” to the suffering of chickens on factory farms.

He envisioned the removal of the chicken’s cerebral cortex. Removing the cerebral cortex, he said, would inhibit the bird’s sensory perceptions so that chickens could be mass-produced without awareness of themselves or their situation in a technologized universe that would make it easier for the chicken industry to make even more money facilitating ever greater consumption of chicken products.

Like Singer, Ford equates removing the chicken’s brain with the “removal of suffering.” In reality, the suffering of chickens on factory farms is more profoundly complex than science fiction and shallow “welfare” solutions. Chicken brain removal, far from removing suffering, takes suffering – the condition of injury or trauma whether consciously felt or not– to the ultimate limit of destroying the biological and psychological integrity of the bird. It accords with the agribusiness view of farmed animals as mere raw material to be manipulated at will.

According to the poultry industry, “The technology built into buildings and equipment is embodied genetically into the chicken itself.” Taking this “embodiment” to the ultimate level of avian degradation will not eradicate the suffering of chickens or our relentless mistreatment of them. – Karen Davis