In December news broke of the proposal for the world’s first commercial octopus farm in the Canary Islands. This proposal is controversial. Recent research into the cognitive abilities of octopuses (which reviewed over 300 scientific studies), proves, almost undeniably, that these creatures feel pain and by extension are sentient.
One experiment conducted allowed octopuses to explore three chambers: one contained acetic acid, the other two anaesthetics. Scientists observed the octopuses avoiding the chamber containing the harmful substance, after their initial entrance into it, associating it with danger. Conversely, chambers, where octopuses were given anaesthesia, were preferred.
This behaviour indicates that octopuses have the neurological capacity to suffer a subjective experience of pain, confirming the aquatic invertebrates’ sentience. If we consider it unethical to cause other beings pain, it is wrong to allow the mass harvesting of these creatures to the tune of 3,000 tonnes per year.
This is because we cannot be certain that octopuses would not suffer in these farms: it is impossible to oversee the welfare of each individual animal. Furthermore, given the poor conditions reported in Scottish salmon farms, where salmon suffer from lice and diseases, it cannot be expected that octopus farms in the Canary Islands will be any better. It is unethical to allow octopuses to experience this pain just to satisfy our tastes.
Yet the octopus question is only a drop in the ocean of ethical shortcomings within the animal farming industry. It has been proven that cows, pigs, chickens and many other animals killed in the UK farming industry are sentient; they have central nervous systems that allow them to feel pain. Yet, unlike octopuses, there is no media uproar concerning the ethics of farming them.
Not only is this accepted by science, it is likely to be recognised soon by UK law. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which had its first reading in the House of Lords last May, will recognise any vertebrate, any cephalopod mollusc (octopuses, cuttlefishes, and squids), and any decapod crustacean (lobsters, crabs, and prawns) as a sentient being.
Furthermore, by proposing the creation of an ‘Animal Sentience Committee’, on which animal experts will be seated, the Bill seeks to ‘ensure that animal sentience is taken into account when developing policy across Government’. It seems that the belief that pleasure and pain are exclusively human traits is slowly being eroded away as myth, not only by science but also by the legal system.
However, this Bill does not go far enough to protect sentient beings from suffering pain for two reasons. Firstly, the law does not require the implications of the word ‘sentient’ be consistent from species to species. Whilst many may consider octopus farming in the Canaries unethical, and certainly take a moral stance against dog fighting, for example, because they acknowledge the creatures’ sentience, the Bill does not require the Government to extend this privilege to the many animals slaughtered to be on our dinner plates – the near 3 million cattle, the 10.5 million pigs and the 1.1 billion chickens annually. The Government may recognise them as sentient but still allow them to be considered in a separate category.
Secondly, the Animal Sentience Committee is not a very powerful body. It is merely advisory, tasked only with ensuring that ‘the government has all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’.
The Government need only hear; they would not be required by law to listen or act upon any advice given.
Thus, animal welfare is not being protected: it is simply being taken into account, rather than considered a priority, or a red line. If the Government considers other factors (most likely economic) more important, then an animal’s right to live free from physical and psychological pain may be infringed. The Government may hear that gassing 86% of pigs with CO2 causes them unimaginable pain in the last moments of their life, but if it’s the cheapest option, they will be well within the law to allow the practice to continue.
The Bill is a red herring, that far better protects the interests of farmers than it respects the sentience of nonhuman animals. Perhaps, at the point where ethics and science converge, lies the uncomfortable truth that animals’ bodies — whether octopus or pig — and their secretions should not have a place on our plates in modern society.
Illustration: Verity Laycock