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The industrialisation of animals: What happened to ethics?

industrialisationWith similarities to its military counterpart, the ‘animal industrial complex’ brings governments, science and corporate agribusiness together to commodify nonhuman animal bodies. The emergence and application of genomics in this alliance is a disturbing attempt to normalise ever more control over farmed animals, writes Dr Richard Twine.

13 December 2010

The Animal Industrial Complex – What is it?

In 1989 Dutch cultural anthropologist and philosopher Barbara Noske in her book Humans and Other Animals coined the phrase the ‘animal industrial complex’.

This event should have kick started a whole array of social science analyses into the political economy of animal agri-business yet in the intervening period I would suggest a paucity of such work and indeed a lack of refinement over just what the concept of the ‘animal industrial complex’ actually means.

I think we can safely assume that Noske took inspiration from the concept of the ‘military industrial complex’ originally named by US President Eisenhower in his farewell address in January 1961 and used to characterise the network of relationships between governments, the various armed forces and the corporate military/security sector that supplies them. One wonders what he would make of the global scale of such relationships 50 years on.

Inherent to that concept and also applicable to Noske’s is a sense of a powerful network acting via a certain sense of concealment. Yet we should also account for the implicit public support of and complicity with such networks and the work that various ideologies perform in presenting a certain natural inevitability to their existence.

In this vein I would like to offer a definition of the ‘animal industrial complex’ as a partially opaque network of relations between governments, public and private science, and the corporate agricultural sector. Within the three nodes of the complex are multiple intersecting levels and it is sustained by an ideology that naturalises the human as a consumer of other animals. It encompasses an extraordinary wide range of practices, technologies, identities and markets.

A large proportion of global crop cultivation is implicated and we must, following Noske, also include the networks and practices of animal experimentation as a part of the complex – indeed, research links between the agricultural and the medical are one of its features. As Noske herself pointed out, “Disease-prone animals are a source of big profits for the pharmaceutical industries.”

The animal-industrial complex achieves the annual slaughter of in excess of 56 billion farmed animals (a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) figure), a figure that excludes marine animals, experimented animals and those farmed animals that don’t make it to the slaughterhouse count.

This figure deserves some pause for thought. It’s an annual figure and it’s on an upward trajectory.

To underline, the animal industrial complex performs the annual repetitious killing of in excess of 56 billion farmed land animals.

A certain degree of opacity and capitalist networking is not the only link between the animal-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex. Both illustrate what French philosopher Michel Foucault referred to as a form of sovereign power understood (like that formerly of a king or queen) as an assumed right to take life or let live as well as a more disciplinary power which is about extracting value from life – the watchful control of populations and an exacting of the optimum degree of productivity and efficiency from the body.

I think we can say the following, even dispassionately (and regardless of how their proponents claim their benefit in terms of trade, employment, security and sustenance), that both types of complex are mechanisms for the extraction of enormous amounts of capital via the killing of bodies.

Both kill across the human/animal distinction. Both evoke and reiterate a similar symbolism of masculinity and nation. Both exploit by class and ethnicity.  (When one third of global crop cultivation is diverted to feed farmed animals we must know implicitly that the animal industrial complex plays a role in maintaining inequitable relations between North and South).

Both complexes also overlap. For example, we can point to the use of nonhuman animals in warfare, the use of animal experimentation by the military, and we can point to suggested uses of animal biotechnology – especially in the bio-pharmaceutical sphere – in a military context such as the potential production of modified spider silk to create a bulletproof fabric.

An especially notable link between the two is found in the role that scientific knowledge and technological innovation play in both.

Although we might naively only associate science with ideas of progress this reminds us of the parallel histories attributed to the practice and commercialisation of scientific knowledge which point to its alliances with capitalism and ideas of mastery and control.

It is specifically the role of science, and specifically animal genomics (the study of the genomes of organisms), within the always changing animal industrial complex that I wish to focus upon in the remainder of this article.

Noske embeds her concept of the animal industrial complex within the 20th century emergence of factory farming.

It is useful to go over some of the terrain of how crucial scientific knowledge has been to that process and how, in light of the 21st century turn to molecular science, we are currently, it appears, about to embark upon a further industrialisation of animal agriculture.

Here by ‘industrialisation’ I mean several things. On one level it means the globalisation of economic relations and the importance to that process of a whole array of technological innovation including, for example, the ability to freeze sperm and the subsequent development of techniques such as artificial insemination and embryo transfer.

Certainly a not insignificant degree of the capital accumulated from global animal agriculture now stems from the trade in farmed animal sperm. Moreover the ability to transport live and dead animals long distances and at greater speeds like ‘any other commodity’ has been an essential part of the story of the animal industrial complex.

On another level industrialisation means the physical and spatial management of large numbers of animal bodies confined within factory environments.

Toward commodified bespoke animals – augmenting factory farming with farmed ‘factories’

On yet another level we must speak of industrialisation in terms of the production of new animal bodies via scientific knowledge.

This understanding of industrialisation aimed directly at the animal body is imperative for grasping the transformation of farmed animals into, in a sense, ‘proper’ commodities. By this I mean as objects that can be more reliably refashioned according to market preferences and novel capitalisation strategies.

It was during the 20th century that domestication began in earnest to come under the rubric of formalised academic centres of animal science. This involved the formation and professionalisation of various closely related disciplines (for example, genetics, endocrinology, animal nutrition) interested in perfecting the efficiency and profitability of the breeding of farmed animals.

Important here has been the gradual and continuing usurpation of local farmer knowledge of animal breeding with that of the knowledge and techniques developed within the context of the animal sciences.

Here we need to understand industrialisation as not merely factory farming as traditionally construed but as the intensification of an instrumental perspective toward other animals that conceives of the animal body as a kind of factory.

This taken-for-granted valuation of an animal in terms of its use for the human is reflected in the dispassionate management of ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ into the animal body.

Molecular knowledge may work here to firstly lessen the costs of inputs (for example breeding animals with improved immunity or those that can be fed less) and either qualitatively speeding up the delivery of outputs or diversifying them (as in the production of biopharmaceuticals alongside meat and dairy products).

It has the potential then to enhance the malleability of the animal and to more fully deliver what we might term the ‘farming of factories’, in a sense a further integration of biology with engineering.

It is noticeable that the chief intellectual focus for animal scientists working in both the academic and private sectors since the turn of the century has been this shift to molecular approaches toward animal breeding in the context of the gradual sequencing of the genomes of the major farmed species.

The genome refers to the entire genetic makeup of a species distributed throughout a varying number of chromosomes depending upon the species.

The hope as far as many animal scientists are concerned is that genetics (now more commonly referred to as genomics as the genome becomes the object of scrutiny and that to which the animal is reduced to) can now offer a vast potential of new types of selection since the goal of genomics is to more precisely unearth an assumed direct relationship between particular (sets of) genes and behaviour, bodily morphology, ‘performance’ and so on.

In the excited language of animal scientists this is about the pursuit of ‘economically relevant traits’, those that are understood as adding value to the livestock industry.

This ‘hunt’ for genes centres on the data gleaned from sequencing projects and involves attempts to locate genes of interest on their respective chromosomal location.

If the distribution of fat in meat is your focus – and it is a significant area of interest to meat producers – genes related to both intramuscular fat and backfat thickness are thought to be located on porcine (pig) chromosome number 6.

Other researchers on pig reproduction have localised genes thought to relate to ovulation rate, teat number, litter size and prenatal survival to chromosome number 8.

A related pre-occupation of this research is an attempt to normalise pathological (meaning here ‘not economic’) reproductive capacity such as investigating suspected genes behind inheritable inverted teat defect.

Perhaps the word ‘teat’ here attempts to perform an act of distancing between human and animal, where shared physiology is renamed from the common human term, since to say ‘nipple’ (or ‘breast’ rather than ‘mammary gland’) could open up awkward paths of empathy, or indeed cause us pause for thought over the human reproductive technologies which exhibit both shared histories and methods with animal re/productive science.

Characteristics such as pig litter size have already been translated into more accurate methods of selection such as ‘marker assisted selection’, and latterly, with more computing power, there is great excitement over the technique of ‘genomic selection’. Actual genetic modification and cloning techniques are at the early stages of commercialisation.

Furthermore during the latter half of the 20th century we witnessed the emergence and rapid growth of global livestock genetics companies which now form an absolutely pivotal role in the animal industrial complex.

As a part of this they may work in relation with the university sector or indeed, more autonomously, employ people who have formerly held academic animal science positions.

The financial incentives to switch careers to the private sector, one can only assume, must be considerable.

More recent developments in the corporate manoeuvres of livestock genetics companies point to significant developments expressed in vertical and horizontal integration. Thus in horizontal integration, companies once specialising in the research and dissemination of particular breeding lines of a given animal such as the pig have tended to amalgamate into cross-species companies increasing both their profitability prospects but also protecting themselves from species specific downturns such as disease outbreaks.

A good example was the 2005 acquisition by bovine genetics specialist Genus plc of the Pig Improvement Company (PIC). Genus plc is now the world’s largest livestock genetics company.

Whereas with moves towards vertical integration we can note emergent links between livestock genetics companies and other nodes in the complex, notably affiliating with much larger food processor and distribution companies. For example UK pig breeding company ACMC works with food manufacturer Smithfield.

If one simply consults the websites of major livestock genetics companies (such as PIC, Hypor, Newsham Choice) observable are the ‘product ranges’ of particular genetic lines for sale. They bring to mind specification sheets for any consumer product that you might purchase and emphasise starkly the reduction of the livestock animal to a set of standardised performance indicators.

Together the disciplines of animal science and their relations with the corporate sphere are crucial to the animal industrial complex and are attempting to normalise ever more control over farmed animals.

They underline the considerable scientific labour inherent to its operation and remind us of the scientific interestedness and involvement in perpetuating an instrumental view of other animals.

Certain dimensions of these relationships have been rendered visible by the internet. This works against the power of concealment that has been historically important to the animal industrial complex and of course has been the point of exposé for countless animal advocacy groups.

Yet how many people know the names of these global players in livestock genetics? How many are aware of the practices of animal science even as, in many cases, they indirectly fund the research?

Unravelling the animal industrial complex?

The assumption of course is that because most people normatively consume animal products they implicitly support such research.

Yet because the animal industrial complex involves so much violence and killing it is unsettling for the vast majority of people.

Actual practices of killing are spatially removed and performed by those exploited according to social class position, gender or ethnicity.

Just as most people would rather not dwell on this or bear witness, it is likely the case that the role of cutting edge scientific knowledge in the further industrialisation of animal agriculture is similarly something that most people would rather not know about.

Nevertheless what if, within these discourses and practices, people discovered a reflexive knowledge? Perhaps a critical knowledge that until a certain point in time had passed under the radar of habitual practice, but now had the capacity to provoke reflection upon our complicity with particular damaging relations toward other people, and toward ecology, and toward nonhuman animals.

The notion of implicit support still depends to an extent on both concealment and ignorance, but perhaps profits more from shame, or indeed indifference.

However it is in the narratives of witnesses and in the importance of recounting very questionable normative practices that seeds of doubt may grow. There is then great value in further social science research that takes dominant ambivalent affective relations toward other animals as a point of sociological interest and is politically and explicitly interested in the real welfare of animals, and its intersectionality with that of animals of the human variety.

From one perspective a possible unravelling of the animal industrial complex is inseparable from that of our perhaps never more so discredited brand of global capitalism and certainly at times, equally as difficult to imagine.

The real crisis for both may be climate change.

It should not be a surprise that animal science is now trying to adapt animal breeding to threats of climate change, for example, by turning to genomics as a potential source of animals that might have less environmental impact.

While capitalist technological innovation has a track record in attempting to reinvent notions of natural limits there may be no technological answer to sustained environmentally damaging economic growth.

Even though some animal scientists have re-orientated their formerly productivist focus to concerns with animal welfare or climate change, yet others are enthralled by both the promise of genomics to produce more as well as loyal to a  notion of food security as somehow an apolitical issue that can be simply addressed by producing more.

Relatedly, livestock genetics companies are already enthusiastically moving into rapidly developing countries and acting as agents for the promotion of a Western meat and dairy centred diet with all the consequences that that entails.

Faced with such obstacles and trends the sensible, timely and rational conclusion is to imagine innovation not in a narrow technological and anthropocentric way but to address the whole set of social and economically embedded norms around human/animal relations which present as natural, and indeed make a virtue out of, the animal industrial complex.

animals_as_biotechnology1Dr Richard Twine is a sociologist currently based at Lancaster University, UK. Since 1996 he has maintained the ecofeminism website and in 2010 published his first book, Animals as Biotechnology: Ethics, Sustainability and Critical Animal Studies (Earthscan), which is a more detailed work around some of the themes of this article. For more information about Richard, visit his website.


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