S&M Pig
S&M Pig Getty Images

Last month, an undergraduate student at Oxford University won the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics for an essay entitled "Why We Should Genetically ‘Disenhance’ Animals Used in Factory Farms." "Disenhance," as Latimer defines it, is "a genetic modification that removes an animal’s capacity to feel pain."

It's an interesting idea. Unless you purchase all your meat from small, bucolic farms where poultry and livestock are regularly massaged and given ample room to graze, peck, eat shit, or whatever they do, the animals we eat suffer mightily. Take, for example, chickens—nearly 9 billion of which are slaughtered every year in the U.S. alone. The vast majority of these chickens are raised in industrial production systems. The conditions can be horrific—so crowded the chickens can't even move, with poor air quality, unnatural lighting, and slaughtering processes that don't take animal welfare into account. For years, chickens (known as "broilers" in the industry) have been bred for rapid growth, which makes them prone to severe skeletal, metabolic, and immune disorders. Even if they had space to move around, many of the chickens we eat are too large to support their own weight. They are in constant pain, and because their spaces are so over-crowded, chickens are frequently de-beaked (exactly what it sounds like) so they don't end up pecking their neighbors to death. It's truly horrific.

The simple answer to ending this and most animal suffering—and the massive environmental cost of eating meat—is veganism (or, at the least, vegetarianism), but the world voluntarily giving up bacon bits and chicken nuggets is about as likely as nutritional yeast mac n' cheese winning a mac n' cheese cook-off. It just ain't gonna happen, unless the judge is sleeping with a vegan chef. In fact, the amount of meat eaten both in the U.S. and abroad has been on the rise for decades. According to the environmental research organization Worldwatch Institute, globally, meat production has tripled over the last 40 years and increased 20 percent from 2000 to 2010.

That's a lot of suffering, and as Latimer wrote in his essay, one potential way of dealing with this suffering would be to breed (or genetically modify) animals so that they don't suffer at all. You could, for example, breed chickens without a brain. It's an idea ethicists have been puzzling over for years. In 1993, writer Robert Burruss mused about the future of egg and meat production in the Baltimore Sun: "Mature hens will be beheaded and hooked up en masse to industrial-scale versions of the heart-lung machines that brain-dead human beings need a court order to get unplugged from," he wrote. "Since the chickens won't move, cages won't be needed. Nutrients, hormones and metabolic stimulants will be fed in superabundance into mechanically oxygenated blood to crank up egg production to three per day, maybe five or even ten. Since no digestive tract will be needed, it can go when the head goes, along with the heart and lungs and the feathers too. The naked, headless, gutless chicken will crank out eggs till its ovaries burn out. When a sensor senses that no egg has dropped within the last four or six hours, the carcass will be released onto a conveyor, chopped, sliced, steamed and made into soup, burgers and dogfood."

That, clearly, has yet to happen—and sounds like a terrible sight—but when asked in 2006 if it would be ethical to genetically engineer a brainless bird, Peter Singer, the philosopher and author of the seminal text Animal Liberation, said, "It would be an ethical improvement on the present system, because it would eliminate the suffering that these birds are feeling. That's the huge plus to me."

And this isn't just hypothetical: In the mid 2000s, animal scientist Grégoy Bédécarrats studied the stress levels of chickens who were naturally, due to a genetic mutation, born blind, and he found that the blind birds were less aggressive and less stressed from human interaction than birds with sight. They also laid more eggs. It's wasn't, however, all sweet darkness and prolific eggs: While there was less stress, the birds also ate less.

Scientists have also developed featherless chickens (and you must see the pics), which, in addition to negating the need for plucking, could actually reduce animal suffering as well. "Firstly, the death rate of birds from overheating will drop," Avigdor Cahaner a professor in the agricultural department of Hebrew University told Haaretz, "and secondly, the birds will be more comfortable because they will suffer less from the heat."

Of course, there has been significant push back on the development of blind birds, naked birds, and, perhaps especially, of brainless birds. "I reject the idea that destroying an animal's ability to experience pain or other forms of consciousness in order to fit the animal into an abusive system is an ethical solution to the suffering engendered by that system," wrote Karen Davis, the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, of Latimer's essay. "For one thing, suffering involves more than the ability to feel pain. Suffering refers to a wound, injury, trauma or harm sustained by a sentient being, whether or not the harm is experienced as pain per se. For example, a brain concussion or a malignant tumor may not be consciously experienced until the disease has progressed."

This is true, and yet, the human (or chicken) suffering from a brain concussion or a malignant tumor still has a brain, whereas, if you could genetically modify or breed an actual headless being, it's hard to see how they could perceive anything at all.

There is, however, another solution. This one comes from Hal Herzog, one of the country's foremost scholars in the field of animal-human interactions, the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, and (full disclosure) my personal dad. I reached him by phone this morning while he was in sitting in a kayak in the middle of a river, and he told me how this idea came about:

"I was in at an animals and the law conference a while back, and during a session on animal welfare, I had this thought: What if we could engineer a pig that liked being kicked around? People who are into sadomasochism get pleasure from pain. Why not pigs? I raised my hand and said it, and everyone looked at me with absolute horror. But," he continued, "if you are utilitarian, and the goal is to increase pleasure and decrease pain, why wouldn't it be ethical to engineer an animal that enjoys being abused? It's an interesting question."

Indeed. And while no industry groups have expressed interest in genetically modifiying pigs who get off on pain, perhaps in the future, there will be a new designation to go along with cage-free eggs and free-range beef. He calls it "S&M pig."