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Would you rather eat a happy cow?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 20, 2013 01:00 PM

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These days we care a lot about the lives of the animals we eat. Free range chickens. Grass-fed cows. Meat is easier to enjoy when we know that our dinner had a decent life, until it didn’t anymore. (And it's also, as this morning's post showed, less directly land-intensive than eating vegetables.)

Enter, then, the prospect of genetically programmed happy cows. A recent post on the blog Overcoming Bias discusses the feasibility of modifying livestock to feel more pleasure (and less pain) and it concludes there’s no reason we couldn’t start doing it tomorrow.

Contributor Carl Shulman—who does not claim any particular knowledge in this area—theorizes that while we may lack the wherewithal to tinker with the bovine genome directly, old-fashioned selective breeding should do the trick. Farmers (and their conglomerate overlords) have successfully bred cows that produce more milk and turkeys that have bigger breasts. They could use the same keen mating-eye to select for cows that have a dulled fear response, lower levels of the stress chemical cortisol, and higher hormonal capacity for happiness.

On the one hand, the idea of genetically blissed-out cows is clearly preferable to stockyards crammed with fear-crazed animals. On the other hand, it seems more than vaguely creepy to show an animal a really good time—isn’t life wonderful!—while all the while scheming to eat it.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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