Playing it Safe with Animals: Agriculture and the Precautionary Principle

One of the many defining features of the sustainable food movement is its distrust of biotechnology–particularly genetically modified crops. Underlying reasons for this pervasive suspicion range from disdain for the corporations who control biotech innovation to the sense that modifying DNA is not what “nature intended.” Exceeding these concerns, though, is the fear that if you tinker with the genetics of a plant by inserting into it genes from another species (almost always a bacterium), scientists cannot predict the unintended consequences.  Select a gene for drought tolerance and who’s to say that, after the gene is inserted, the DNA sequence of the plant won’t trigger a mutation that’s allergy inducing, or carcinogenic?

It’s due to these concerns that advocates of more natural approaches to growing food cite the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle asserts that, when it comes to the safety of a new technology, the burden of proof that it’s safe sits on the shoulders of the actor. As a strategy to stymie the growth of an emerging technology, it’s ingenious. Detractors need only create a plausible scenario of danger and declare, based on the precautionary principle, that all action must cease until safety is proven. The precautionary principle has generally not been successfully applied to genetic modification (for reasons that I won’t go into here). Nevertheless, it remains one of the sustainable food movements most powerful strategic and ideological pieces of weaponry.

Which brings me to animals. Advocates of agricultural sustainability tend to assume that humans have a moral right to subjugate animals in order to “harvest” their flesh, eggs, and other products. As long as this harvesting is done “sustainably,” then everything is a-okay. This perspective, however, quietly fails to in any way acknowledge the science that has emerged over the last quarter century bearing on the cognitive abilities of the animals we currently exploit for food we do not need. Without going into details, it is no longer possible to deny that a body of more than suggestive evidence has emerged to raise the very strong possibility that farm animals deserve the right not to be unnecessarily killed.

Which brings me back to the precautionary principle and the sustainable food movement. Shouldn’t the food movement, in the name of consistency, apply the precautionary principle to animals? In other words, shouldn’t it err on the side of caution and conclude that until we can be sure that we’re not exploiting animals who (based on recent research) deserve equal moral consideration, we should leave them out of “sustainable agriculture.” This is essentially the same argument that the sustainable food movement makes against genetically modified crops. If it were intellectually consistent, it would apply this principle to animals and, as a result, become truly–rather than rhetorically–sustainable.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to Playing it Safe with Animals: Agriculture and the Precautionary Principle

  1. Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten says:

    Not to analyze the food movement as entirely logical or rationally motivated, but a large part of what qualifies the precautionary principal for food is perceived longevity, or traditional value.

    So GMO is bad, because it has no ancestral pedigree, and animals are to be used as food because animals have always been used as food. The food movement is being consistent.

    The other constant, is that people in lab coats, academics in educational institutions, researchers and engineers in government and corporations; the people who generate a body of knowledge called science, aren’t to be trusted—unless the science supports the food movement agenda of course.

    This anti-science pro-tradition ideology is rampant in the food movement in many manifestations and is reinforced and advocated by high profile writers like Michael Pollan whose evocative prose makes the stance seem far more reasonable that it really is.

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