The health of animals obviously matters to the animals — and to the farmers. But in truth, it matters to all of us. Surely it is morally wrong to condone such suffering. It is dangerous for all of us, too – for many animal infections are “zoonoses”: diseases that we can catch from them, and often have. The means by which animals are kept “healthy” – or at least not obviously sick – can also be dangerous: including mass deployment of antibiotics. The financial significance – the loss of herds and the compensation paid to farmers – is almost trivial by comparison with all this, although in the modern world it’s the kind of consideration that tends to weigh most heavily in high places.
The artificial diets of the farm cause many problems too. Animals may not be equipped to cope with them, anatomically, physiologically, or psychologically. Worse — such diets are designed to produce rapid growth and high yields, which again can stress the animal. The stress can be exacerbated by breeding: turkeys so big they cannot stand; cows obliged to straddle their enormous udders. And what might lie in store for GM livestock?
Yet it’s often claimed that if animals grow and breed rapidly, as modern livestock do, then they cannot be unhappy. Evidence from humans shows the lie of this. Obesity, for example, is a common sign of depression. But how can we tell if an animal is distressed, and to what degree? What are our criteria of happiness and contentment? Should we assume, as a matter of Cartesian-behaviourist dogma, that non-human animals are just machines? Or begin by assuming that other animals are basically like us, unless proved otherwise?
Then there are many specific issues, needing broad discussion. What was the real source of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001? Why did it spread so rapidly? What should have been done to contain it? What can be done to prevent such horrors in the future? The same questions apply to BSE. Is it really sensible to slaughter badgers to contain TB? If not, what?
All this needs thrashing out in depth in a way that rarely seems to happen – and certainly not in public. We need vets, farmers and specialist scientists on board to pursue these issues – and the College exists to achieve just this. Just to kick things off, I have offered a few thoughts of my own. As always, the invitation is open to all to get involved.