Genetic Engineering in Farmed Animals: Solving or Prolonging Cruelty in Animal Agriculture?


In the United States, meat consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years, from 15.8 million tons total in 1960 to 34.0 million tons in 2013 [1]. With such a steep increase in demand for animal products, factory farming industries are exploring ways to increase their supply and their profits. One controversial method for increasing the supply of meat that is beginning to become more prevalent is genetic engineering. The United States has already seen a rise in genetic engineering in crops, which has proven to be controversial since little is known about long-term health effects of genetically engineered food. Genetically altering livestock may prove to be even more controversial. Not only will the same long-term health questions arise, but with animals, there is an added moral dimension that calls into question whether it is right to alter sentient beings for our own purposes. Researchers are currently looking into many possible ways to genetically modify livestock. Some may be seen as ethical because they benefit the animal in some way, but ultimately the best ethical choice must be to decrease the demand for meat, and genetically modifying our livestock will only prolong the high demand for animal products. Therefore, genetically altering farmed animals is ultimately unethical as a long-term solution. However, genetic engineering may present a solution to the meat production problem through lab-grown meat, and in the meantime genetic modifications can be used for purposes of temporary improvement.

Current Situation and Research

Currently, the main type of genetic modification that is taking place in the meat industry is selective breeding. Farmers are selecting for the largest animals possible so that they can get the highest weight of meat per animal. In the case of chicken, the size of chicken raised for meat in the United States has more than quadrupled in the last 60 years. In 1957, the average adult chicken weighed 905 g. In 2015, the average weight of a chicken has grown to 4.202 kg [2]. Farmers must raise larger chickens as a result of a trend of increasing consumer demand. Consumers are demanding an increasing amount of chicken. Furthermore, since Americans are demanding mostly white meat, farms have had to raise chickens with disproportionately large breasts. Farmers claim that the chickens have not yet reached their ultimate weight limit. However, chickens are already suffering health problems as a result of their weight, and this will only get worse as farmers try to keep increasing the weight of their chickens [2]

Although not standard practice in farms yet, there are many other types of genetic modification of farmed animals that are currently being researched. One thing researchers are looking to accomplish through genetic engineering is to make livestock more disease-resistant [3]. This would be beneficial because it would reduce the need for antibiotics in farmed animals. It would also decrease the likelihood of mass slaughters, which occasionally have to be performed in order to contain diseases from spreading. Another area of research is looking into altering animals used in the egg and dairy industries to produce only female eggs [4]. In the egg industry, male chicks are thrown away because they are not needed in egg production. In the dairy industry, it is also the case that only females are used for production, so males are often slaughtered shortly after they are born. Genetically altering these animals to produce only females would help solve this problem. A third method being researched is to make farmed animals more nutritionally valuable to humans [4]. This would clearly benefit meat-eating humans, provided that there are no unforeseen negative health effects of the genetic modification. However, currently not enough is known to determine whether there would be negative health effects, either for humans or for the animals being modified. A fourth area of genetic engineering that is being researched is genetically modifying animals to produce excretions that have less environmental impact. For example, one study found a way to reduce sulfur emissions from pig excretions 75% [4]. One other goal of genetic engineering in livestock that is being researched is to reduce the animals’ capacity to feel pain [5].

Ethical Analysis

There are certainly some benefits of these methods of genetic engineering. If we could produce more disease-resistant livestock, this would reduce animal suffering in multiple ways. It would decrease their likelihood of contracting a debilitating disease and decrease the chances that they would have to be slaughtered prematurely in attempts to control the spread of diseases. Additionally, it would decrease the need for overuse of antibiotics, which is damaging the health of livestock populations by making them more vulnerable to diseases. If we could have animals who only produced female offspring, this would significantly decrease the immense suffering caused by male chicks and calves being discarded by the dairy and egg industries. If animals were made to have a reduced capacity to feel pain, this could be seen as an improvement to their welfare. And certainly, if we could produce animals who excrete emissions that are less damaging to the environment, the world would see an improvement over the current situation of high levels of toxic emissions that result from factory farming practices.

However, by considering these types of genetic modifications in farmed animals, we are overlooking the larger issue at hand. Current production rates of meat and other animal products are unsustainable in the long term. Animal agriculture is the source of the majority of greenhouse gases produced throughout the planet, higher even than all the transportation in the world combined [6]. It is also a leading cause of deforestation, because humans are clearing forests to make room for fields to grow crops needed to feed livestock. Currently, 30 percent of the world’s total land is used for raising animals for food, and 80 percent of the land cleared in the Amazon Rainforest is used to raise cattle [7].

Animal farming is arguably the most significant threat to the environment that we are facing today. If we accept the method of genetic modification discussed above, then we are only prolonging the issue of animal farming. Even if the animals being farmed experience a reduction of suffering, the environmental issues would not be solved. In fact, they may even worsen. If these modifications that reduce animal suffering give people more peace of mind in regards to eating meat, they may further increase their demand for meat, causing deforestation to increase at an even higher rate. Although it is possible that genetic engineering can reduce emissions coming from the animals, it is not certain how well the implementation of these modifications would work on a large scale. Furthermore, even if this kind of modification were successful on a large scale, the emissions could never be reduced to zero, so environmental contamination would continue to occur.

In addition to the environmental concern, there is a moral dimension to this issue that would not be completely solved by the genetic modifications being researched. Although animal welfare would improve in the respect that they could feel less pain and be less likely to contract diseases, there are other components of their welfare that genetic modification could never solve. For example, in the dairy industry, in order to get all the milk possible from dairy cows, their offspring must be taken away from them right after their birth. This is true whether or not the milk is labeled as organic [8]. This is traumatizing for both the mother and the calf, and it is something that a dairy cow will have to endure over and over again throughout her productive lifespan. She must continue to give birth in order for her to continuously produce milk, but she can never keep any of her offspring because her milk is taken for production rather than for feeding her calves. Additionally, genetic engineering cannot solve the fact that the lives of animals used for meat production ultimately end in slaughter. Farmed animals display clear signs of fear and distress when they are approaching slaughter. Evidence suggests that they can sense the death that is occurring around them and they fear for their lives. One case documents a cow jumping a 6 foot fence in an attempt to escape being slaughtered [9].

All the moral issues mentioned so far are just the problems that are inherent to the industries, those which would be very difficult to make any better. In addition to those issues, there are more problems with animal cruelty in the animal product industries that are preventable yet have remained common practice. Many undercover investigations have been conducted by animal rights groups such as Mercy for Animals that reveal unnecessary cruelty towards farm animals. For example, one recent investigation conducted on a North Carolina farm in 2015 found that still-conscious chickens are shackled upside down and given electric shocks, and then their throats are sawed open [10]. This is just one of many investigations that reveal horrible violence toward farmed animals. Other investigations have shown that farmed animals live their lives confined to extremely close quarters with other animals. Most of the time, animals are not even given enough cage space to rotate their bodies [10].

Although it is clear that animal agriculture has significant moral problems, there is also an ethical issue concerning how we could reduce or eliminate animal agriculture. If we were to reduce the number of farms that practice animal agriculture, this could potentially cost those farmers their livelihoods. Farmers on meat and dairy farms would certainly disagree with eliminating animal agriculture for this reason. However, I would urge people to focus on the big picture. Animal agriculture is very harmful to the environment. If we keep production going at its current rate we may do irreversible damage to the Earth, and it is unknown what that could mean in terms of the survival of the human race. I would suggest that if we were to take measures to reduce animal agriculture, programs should be put in place to help convert animal agriculture farms into plant agriculture farms or help displaced farmers relocate to currently operating plant agriculture operations. It is always possible to help people working in dying industries to find new jobs, but it may not be possible to restore the Earth’s environment if we damage it too severely.

Ultimately, if we are to take every aspect of the ethical problem into consideration, we must view farmed animals for what they really are: intelligent, sentient beings. Scientific evidence has shown that pigs are capable of feeling genuine stress and empathy [11]. They, and all other farmed animals, are capable of a range of emotions, including love, suffering, and fear. They are much more similar to humans than we like to admit, but in order to fully analyze the ethical issue, we must view them as beings who feel distress from having their children taken away, from living life in tightly confining cages, and from being led to slaughter. If we can truly view animals in this way, then it is unquestionably unethical to exploit them in this way for their resources, and giving them a reduced capacity to feel pain or contract diseases would not change this.

Potential Solutions

With these environmental and moral issues associated with the making of animal products in mind, another question arises: surely we cannot convert everyone on earth to vegetarianism or veganism, at least not in the near future. So what is the most ethical way to continue meat production? A possible answer comes from another area of genetic engineering: in-vitro meat. In this practice, meat tissues are grown in a lab independent of an actual living animal [12]. This has several advantages over traditional animal farming. First of all, there is almost no harm done to the animals in this process. The cells only need to be extracted from one animal, and the rest of the production comes from lab work. This eliminates all the ethical issues discussed earlier that come into question with raising animals for factory farming. Secondly, with in-vitro meat, scientists can control the exact content of fat versus muscle that comprises the meat they grow [12]. This way, we can get exactly the meat composition we want every time. We would not even have to worry about other unneeded components such as skin and bones that we must deal with in the traditional meat farming process. With in-vitro farming, we can even grow meat of endangered animals, which is beneficial to the environment because it would decrease the demand for killing real endangered animals. In-vitro meat seems to solve all the major ethical issues presented by meat production from traditional factory farming. All forms of animal suffering are reduced to virtually zero. There is no slaughter necessary, and no need for keeping animals in tight cages. There is virtually no environmental impact, because there are no animals to make excretions that are damaging to the environment. There is also a reduced need to clear forest land for growing food for livestock. The concern of disease control ceases to be an issue, since there are no large groups of animals to watch over that could potentially contract diseases

It would seem that in-vitro meat presents the perfect solution to the issues at hand. However, it only addresses part of the problem. It solves the problems associated with raising animals for meat, but it does nothing to eliminate the suffering and other damaging effects caused by the egg and dairy industries. Even if meat production were completely taken over by in-vitro meat and factory farming for meat were no longer needed, factory farming practices would still prevail in the production of eggs and dairy. There is still a considerable amount of suffering endured by animals in these industries, even if their lives do not end in slaughter. They also must be fed, so land would still need to be cleared to grow crops for them to eat. Greenhouse gases would still be emitted, albeit in lower amounts than the current amount emitted by the meat, egg and dairy industries combined. It seems that implementing in-vitro meat production can only slow, but not completely eliminate, the issues caused by the production of animal products.

So what is the solution to the issues that remain for egg and dairy production? One possible solution lies in the fact that there are already a wide range of substitutes for eggs and milk on the market today. The more people start to convert their diets to using these substitutes in place of real milk and eggs, the more the negative impacts of factory farming can be reduced over time. In a perfect world, the high demand for eggs and dairy would decrease on its own and leave no need for factory farming. However, many see this as an unlikely scenario. If people are unwilling to change their dietary habits to combat the negative impacts of factory farming, perhaps genetic engineering may have to provide a solution to the egg and dairy problem as well. Theoretically, if we are capable of using stem cells to create muscle tissue, perhaps we could use stem cells to produce eggs as well. However, the same principle cannot be applied to the production of milk, since it is not a tissue of a living organism. Perhaps a milk-like substance can be produced synthetically in the lab, but this likely would not be an improvement over existing milk substitutes such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk and coconut milk.


Ultimately, it seems that lab production may be capable of recreating some of the products of factory farming, but in reality even replacing traditional meat with lab-grown meat is a far-off concept. It is currently much more expensive to produce in-vitro meat than traditional meat. In-vitro meat also has not yet been able to accurately replicate the texture of real meat [12]. Widespread adoption of lab-grown meat is still a possibility for the future but it cannot be considered a solution in the short term. However, cultured meat scientist Dr. Mark Post claims that in 20 or 30 years, there may be a “viable industry producing alternative beef” [13]. If synthetically produced milk or eggs are a possibility, it will be in an even more distant future when they could possibly be implemented on a large scale. Realistically, the best thing humans can currently do to combat the negative effects of factory farming is to reduce their consumption of meat, eggs and dairy or fully adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. If enough people can change their dietary habits, we can slow the environmental and ethical impacts of the production of animal products and give humanity more time to find a permanent solution. It is possible that dietary evolution combined with lab-grown meat will prove to be a solution 30 years from now. But, until we arrive at a permanent solution, perhaps genetic modifications such as reducing pain and causing only females to be born can help alleviate some of the problems we are currently facing. However, it is crucial that we do not view these genetic modifications as a permanent solution, because then we will continue unsustainable practices that degrade the environment. Genetically modifying farmed animals is not inherently unethical if used as a temporary improvement of the current condition, but we must continue to seek a more permanent solution for the prolonged survival of the human race and life on Earth

By Megan Wagoner, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

Works Cited

[1] “Meat Consumption of the United States, 1960-2013.” Earth Policy Institute and United States Department of Agriculture, 2014.

[2] R.A. Ferdman. “Look What Our Obsession with White Meat has Done to our Chickens.” Wall Street Journal. (15 Mar 2015). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 01 Apr 2015].

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[4] K.A. McColl, B. Clark and T.J. Doran. (Mar 2013). “Role of Genetically Engineered Animals in Future Food Production.” Australian Veterinary Journal. [Online]. 91(3), pp. 113-117.

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[6] A. Solomon. “Animal Agriculture as the Real Inconvenient Truth.” Mercy For Animals. (12 Nov 2013). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 05 Apr 2015].

[7] “6 Ways Being Vegan Saves the Planet.” Mercy For Animals. (22 Apr 2014). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 05 Apr 2015].

[8] S. Von Alt. “4 Ways the Meat Industry Lies to You.” Mercy For Animals. (27 Jan 2015). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 05 Apr 2015].

[9] A. Solomon. “Cow Jumps 6 Foot Fence in Attempt to Save Her Own Life.” Mercy For Animals. (16 Dec 2014). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 05 Apr 2015].

[10] “Undercover Investigations: Exposing Animal Abuse.” Mercy For Animals. (2015). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 05 Apr 2015].

[11] F. Muth. “Can Pigs Empathesize?”, Scientific American. (13 Jan 13 2015). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 06 Apr 2015].

[12] W. Galusky. (June 2014). “Technology As Responsibility: Failure, Food Animals, and Lab Grown Meat.” Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics. [Online]. 27, 931-948.

[13] S. Von Alt. “Lab Grown Meat May Soon Become Totally Affordable.” Mercy For Animals. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 07 Apr 2015].