Pain-free Farming: it’s a possibility
For decades people have been protesting against the inhumane treatment of livestock in farms. Thanks to regular media reports abattoirs and factory farms have become notorious for the mistreatment of their animals. However our hunger for meat has caused this injustice to be readily overlooked. In fact the average Australian consume almost 33kg of beef and veal per year. (National Farmers Federation n.d)
But what if we could end the suffering of these animals whilst still feeding the masses? An article by Ewan Callaway in the New Scientist has opened the world’s eyes to a new possibility- pain free farming. It suggests that if we use our growing understanding of genetics to block the feeling of pain in livestock that factory farming will become a more humane process. (Callaway 2009)
The first step is to identify what actually causes pain. Pain is the feeling of an unpleasant sensation. The pain process has two distinct pathways: the sensory pathway, which detects the location of the pain, and the affective pathway, which asserts the unpleasant feeling that we know as pain. (Shriver 2010) Studies have found that affective process is associated with a particularly section of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex or the ACC. (Callaway 2009)
The next step is to work out a method of blocking pain that would be easily administered in large scale factory farms. The solution to this lies within our genes.
Zhou-Feng Chen, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington has been conducting experiments on pain in animals and has begun to identify the genes associated with affective pain. In particular, Chen and his colleagues have identified the gene P311 of which is expressed exclusively in the ACC. Chen used this knowledge to conduct a variety of experiments relating to pain on mice. (Callaway 2009) Overall it was found that the mice that lacked the P311 gene did not avoid situations where they would experience pain. This suggests that by removing the P311 gene the mice did not feel the unpleasant sensation of pain.
In order to create mice that lack the P311 gene it must be knocked out using a targeting vector. This vector needs to have both specific sequences that can recognize the P311 gene and a target gene to replace it. The vector is then inserted into an embryonic stem cell where it binds to the specific region of DNA. Then through the process of recombination the target gene from the vector replaces the P311 gene. The result of this is a series of cells that lack the P311 gene that can then be transferred into the embryo’s of animals. (Walinski 2004)
Due to the similarities in the pain process in mammals it is highly possible to genetically engineer livestock without the P311 gene.(Shriver 2010) Whilst factory farms are not currently pain free the studies that are being carried out by scientists around the world are certainly making it a possible future for the meat industry.
Callaway, E 2009, Pain-free animals could take suffering out of farming, New Scientist, 18 March 2012, <http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327243.400-painfree-animals-could-take-suffering-out-of-farming.html?full=true>
National Farmers Federation n.d, Major commodities-Beef, viewed 19 March 2012
Shriver, A 2010, Not grass-fed but at least pain free, New York Times, 18 March 2012, < http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/opinion/19shriver.html>
Walinski, H 2004 Studying gene function: creating knockout mice, viewed 19 March 2012, <http://www.scq.ubc.ca/studying-gene-function-creating-knockout-mice/>