Reading horrid tales of the lives of intensively farmed animals is always frustrating. The stories provoke a simple question to which there is no simple answer: if farm animals suffer so much and if boycotting their products in favour of more humanely produced ones could help swing the market into kinder practices, then why do people not switch to more cruelty-free meat?
Behind the many obvious responses, such as the high price of more cosseted meat and its invisibility on supermarket shelves, lies a more fundamental response. Many people moved by the plight of farm animals become vegetarian. This deprives the "humane meat'' producers of their core market, which prevents the evolution of a bigger market that would push prices down and visibility up.
Readers moved by this book will become another group lost to the humane meat industry because Danny Penman urges them, too, into a state of meatless purity. But his demands come towards the end of the book. Most of The Price of Meat is a quick tour of the meat industry's house of horrors and a glimpse of the disturbances to come.
Among the stories of standard atrocities my favourite arises from the short life story of the broiler hen, selectively bred over the past 30 years to the extent that its muscles now grow too heavy to be supported properly by its skeleton. This makes walking tricky and causes painful bones and joints.
Much of Penman's evidence is drawn from the reliable studies of John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at Bristol University, and from other academics who have deepened our knowledge of animal feelings through ingenious experiments.
The second part of the book covers modern animal breeding techniques and the feasts of genetic manipulation being cooked up by biotechnologists. One strand of research aims to alter animals' digestions so that they can absorb foods they would not naturally eat. "The idea appears simple,'' Penman writes. "The genes from the fibre-digesting bacteria found in the rumens of cows and sheep would be introduced into pigs and chickens." Pigs and chickens would then be able to graze.
"However, to produce a grazing pig takes more than a sprinkling of new genes. The animal's entire make-up would need to be re-engineered: the digestion of plant fibre first requires a large vat-like stomach to ferment the mixture of celluloses and enzymes; then the animal's genetically preprogrammed instincts may need to be re-engineered to cope with the new food sources. The intermediate 'steps', which will, of course, be sentient creatures, produced before this research comes to fruition, if it ever does, may suffer enormously."
The tour brings the reader up to date with a breakdown of the basics of animal rights philosophy. Then Penman calls for two courses of action. One is fundamental and a goal of many campaigners. European law should be amended so that animals are no longer classified as goods. Instead they should be given a category of their own that recognises they are sentient. To alter the Treaty of Rome in this way would be to take a step that is both logical and moral, if with daunting and unpredictable repercussions. The second action is for consumers to become vegetarian.
The Price of Meat will not provide any new facts to those who have already read about farm animal welfare and the promises of genetic engineering. The book is not a penetrating analysis of the way society is awakening to the issue of animal welfare, nor does it provide an intellectually thorough summary of animal welfare philosophy. But it is an easy read, with the science clearly explained and the philosophy well popularised.
Aisling Irwin is a journalist specialising in science and environmental issues.
The Price of Meat: Salmonella, Listeria, Mad Cows - What Next?
Author - Danny Penman
ISBN - 0 575 06344 0
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £9.99
Pages - 240