The reason I avoid touting the benefits of veganism beyond alleviating animal suffering (i.e., environmental, human health) is that new technology can (and sometimes does) alter the argument. More specifically, genetic modifications to farm animals that lessen their harmful impact on the planet or our bodies can be hailed as progress and, therefore, allow for meat consumption with fewer qualms. This may be the case with the new and improved farm animal from Canada: Enviropig.
National Geographic reports that researchers have created a pig that will produce 65% less phosphorus in his urine and feces. Pigs receive phosphorus from cost-efficient cereal grains, but since they lack the enzyme phytase to break down the element, it must be added as a less-effective supplement. Hence, large amounts of phosphorus are excreted and must be collected in giant waste lagoons. These holding pens (which became necessary when pig farming went industrial) pose an environmental hazard by their very existence (In 1995, the New River in North Carolina was overrun by 25 million gallons of pig waste when a dike collapsed. The toxic sludge, taking two months to move 16 miles downstream, killed everything in its wake.). Because pig manure is used as fertilizer, leaching of elevated phosphorus levels into nearby lakes and streams can create suffocating algal blooms. For a closer look at the nasty business of hog farming, read Jason Tietz’s Boss Hog.
To combat the phosphorus problem, scientists found a usable enzyme from E. coli, paired it with a mouse DNA promoter, and injected the concoction into pig embryos. Out comes a transgenic (and greener) domesticated pig. The project, some ten years old, has been successful: the gene has proven to be inheritable, the bacterial protein has not effected meat sections, the new pigs are fine, and, most importantly, it works. Naturally, the industry loves it. The National Pork Board’s Paul Sundberg: “Pork producers are in favor of any technologies that can increase their competitiveness.” Approval is pending in the U.S. and Canada.
Earth’s health looms as a giant issue in the 21st Century, and the environmental havoc wreaked by meat and dairy has lately received due attention. In short, a vegan world would require far less energy, land, and water than is currently used. And, of course, the messy little problem of what to do with animal excrement would be eliminated. But what if Enviropig represents the future? Corporate farmers are savvy businessmen who will make the occasional small concession (Enviropig, healthier cut of meat, larger cage) to distract the masses from the giant elephant in the room: what we do to the animals we eat.
Fundamentally, animals-as-widgets is a moral question. Either their suffering matters or it does not. Industrially-produced animals enter the world in distress (prematurely torn from their mothers’ love and comfort), are afforded only the bare necessities (food, water, shelter) during their miserable mass confinement, and exit in terror at the slaughterhouse. The environment and human health should always be secondary issues. In the grand scheme of things, Enviropig is just white noise meant to obviate a deeper examination of our relationship with the animals we exploit.