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"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. "I'm offering a solution where you could still eat meat but avoid animal suffering."
Battery farm chickens, for instance, routinely have part of their beaks removed without anaesthetic or pain relief to prevent them from pecking their neighbours.
For instance, mice lacking a gene called Nav1.7 are less sensitive than normal rodents to heat and pressure (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 101, p 12706). By similarly blocking the sensation of pain in livestock, practices like debeaking would potentially be "much more humane", says Shriver.
One objection to the idea of knocking out pain in livestock is that it could mean they put themselves in harm's way. In 2006, researchers identified six children from three Pakistani families with mutations that inactivated one particular gene. None of the children had ever felt pain, though they appeared otherwise healthy. All the kids had bruises and cuts, and one, who was known to place knives through his hand and walk on coals, died after jumping off a roof (Nature, vol 444, p 894).