On the Coinciding of Norman Borlaug and Pain-Free Animals

Josh Clark

I've come to believe that there's some sort of connective tissue between events and living things that generally lies just beyond sensible perception. Sometimes a glimpse is afforded for only an astoundingly clear moment and our understanding of what's just been realized fades into gauze and then nothingness, despite how hard we may grasp at it to maintain our hold. At other times it remains in plain sight, but our understanding of what we're looking at simply falters. Kind of like how the first person to behold a dead fish must have puzzled over it. There it is, smelly and shiny and not moving, but what the heck is it? Eventually, we came up with a word for it -- fish -- and with a name, it became mundane. A dead fish, now, is a dead fish, nothing more.

Perhaps in a similar way, after further examination what we in the West have named coincidence will be understood as something more, that we've misnamed the dead fish we stumble upon from time to time. Until then, I've had a recent brush with coincidence.

First, I recently became familiar with Norman Borlaug, upon his death. He is one of the few people ever credited with savings hundreds of millions, if not a billion, human lives. He did it with wheat. After World War II, the developed world lent its knowledge of sanitation to the developing world; this lead to sudden and dramatic declines in death rates making the planet suddenly much more densely populated. In very short order we approached the carrying capacity for the agricultural techniques in use at the time. As a result, famines were projected throughout the world some time within the 1960s. Starvation would lead to the loss of hundreds of millions, if not a billion, human lives. So Borlaug intervenes by going to Mexico and setting up a pair of research stations that fostered the green revolution -- what we see as modern agriculture today: intensive use of irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides, coupled with Borlaug's hybrid wheat seeds that could withstand the boost in growth. It led to incredibly abundant yields which averted the predicted famines and the credit for saving the lives that would have been lost goes into Borlaug's column. It also gave rise to the factory farms and Big Agra that so many rail against today. Norman Borlaug became a major target for the environmental movement, as his techniques gave rise to these factory farms.

Second, a nagging urge to avail myself of my opinions on speciesism and the concept of animal self-awareness. It took the form of this blog post. Essentially, I argued against the widely-held view that animals lack the self-awareness to experience the secondary emotions that would elevate them to the same plane as human beings and hence be released from their starring roles in our laboratories and dinner tables.

Now, the connective tissue, which has remained unread in my Inbox until just now. Mark in Publishing Operations here at HSW sent Chuck and me a couple links to a recent study about the development of pain-free animals. One of the links leads to a New Scientist article centered around a Washington University philosopher who recently stated that it is incumbent upon us humans to develop livestock that is genetically modified to not feel pain if we are to continue to eat meat. The article goes on to describe how we might go about that, based on findings in the field of neurology that show the physical sensation of pain and our emotional experience of it as unpleasant are distinct and might be informed by separate genes. As such physical pain and our experience of pain (called affective pain) could ostensibly be separated, leaving intact survival skills developed by pain, while not allowing an animal to suffer from the sensation of pain.

What first alerted me that the ghost of Norman Borlaug was at hand (and led to this blog post) was the citation of statistics on meat consumption in the article. Since the 1960s, the time Borlaug's wheat took hold and averted disaster, meat consumption has risen by 50 percent. This would be a direct result of Borlaug's legacy, since more abundant yields lead to cheaper wheat. In turn, this leads to cheaper feed for livestock, which leads to cheaper meat , which allows for higher consumption. And then there was a quote from the philosopher in the NS article that served as the connective tissue between my new familiarity with Norman Borlaug and my recent post on animal self-awareness; what we might call the dead fish or coincidence or whatever:

"'If we can't do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,' says Adam Shriver, a philosopher at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri."

So the factory farms that Norman Borlaug inadvertently created when he saved the world and the concept of animal suffering have been connected in my experience, thanks to Adam Shriver, who is officially a dead fish.

More on HowStuffWorks.com: How long can you go without food and water? Has the Earth reached its carrying capacity? How Pain Works