Readin’, writin’, and artificial insemination

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Remember a typical high school day? English: work on Hamlet essay. Civics: meet in library. Art: finish perspective drawing. Algebra: test, chapter 7. Ag-education: artificially inseminate cow.

Wait, what?

That’s the gist of an article in a recent Missoulian (Missoula, MT): animal husbandry ain’t what it used to be. Sure, it still involves mucking around in manure, but increasingly, it also means turning to science to engineer ever more production out of animals–in this case, commandeering the reproductive systems of individual cows.

“The point is not to manipulate Mother Nature,” says a teacher at Missoula County Public Schools’ Agricultural Center, located on a 100-acre farm. “The point is to find excellent genes in cattle and then produce more of them.” Creating “genetically superior animals saves resources and produces better, more bountiful food,” the article instructs.

Even though “bodily integrity” is a concept that never applies to animals in a human-dominated world, this goes far beyond the crude confinement of gestation crates and battery cages and into a brave new realm of intimately aggressive managment. Genetically superior cows are induced into estrus and super ovulation with hormones, causing them to produce anywhere from five to 50 eggs. Semen from genetically superior bulls is used to artificially inseminate them (if you’d like to see how that works in a one-minute dairy cow video, view here, or in a longer, more instructive video, view here). The inseminated eggs are then removed from Super Cow, frozen, and later introduced into younger, more durable recipient cows in a process called embryonic transfer.

“Instead of supplying six to eight calves over her lifetime, a healthy cow can produce 50 or more offspring using embryonic transfer,” according to the article. This idea was delivered factually and dispassionately, but I read it with sadness. I imagined the lives of these cows–robbed of their natural life rhythms, invaded by plastic-sheathed arms inserted in their rectums, embryos later flushed from their uteruses; recipient cows–they have to be the “right package” to put the embryo in–who submit to “an epidural block at the tailhead to prevent straining. The loaded transfer gun is carefully passed through the vulva and the cervix then guided into the uterine horn on the same side of the ovary with the active corpus luteum…”

Anyone who has read Lisa Kemmerer’s Sister Species: Women, animals and social justice will instantly recognize the institutional exploitation of female reproductive means central to the book’s message.

Does this manufacturing approach to calf creation affect how students relate to animals? Do they tend to see cows less as sentient individuals and more as objects of production–objects whose product is born to die?

No, says their ag teacher in a 10-minute interview on Montana Public Radio. He maintains that (paraphrased), Some might think that raising livestock would desensitize students, make them uncompassionate, but in reality it’s the opposite; when they raise these animals they become more compassionate toward those animals and other people–“it has a nurturing effect, raising livestock.”

His students agree. A male student says (paraphrased), People come out here thinking it’s raising animals to kill them but that’s not our goal at all. People spend so much time with them, working on them, caring for them, they do get attached and feel a lot of pain for them at that point. And a female student: Everyone gets really attached but when you take them to the fair, it’s business and you know that’s what has to happen.

Of course, that isn’t what has to happen. It’s a choice that’s been made–by everyone from these students and their teachers right on up to our meat-eating society as a whole. If we truly felt “a lot of pain” for animals, wouldn’t we just admit that raising them to kill and eat is unnecessary–that it’s an elective appetite–and stop doing it?

Folks will argue ’til the superior cows come home as to whether programs like 4-H desensitize kids to killing. It’s harder to argue a claim presented no less than three times in the relatively short Missoulian piece: that creating superior cattle will feed a hungry planet. “The world needs food, and no matter what, the important thing is to get people fed. And this new technology is allowing that,” asserts a high school Junior.

But even genetically superior cattle are still cattle who require resources. According to a recent Scientific American, reducing per capita meat consumption is one of five solutions to feeding the world and sustaining the planet. “Tragically, 80% of the world’s hungry children live in countries with food surpluses, much of which is in the form of feed fed to animals that will be eaten by well-to-do consumers,” says Jeremy Rifkin, writing in “There’s a bone to pick with meat eaters.” He continues:

A footnoted Viva! Guide, “Feed the World: Why eating meat is a major cause of world hunger and going vegetarian is a solution” makes this claim: “If animal farming were to stop and we were to use the land to grow grain to feed ourselves, we could feed every single person on this planet. Consuming crops directly – rather than feeding them to animals and then eating animals – is a far more efficient way to feed the world.”

And far kinder and more just, too–for animals, people, and the earth. If the student is right that “no matter what, the important thing is to get people fed,” why don’t high school ag programs give him and other kids like him the real tools to change the world?

This post first appeared at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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