The Quantified Animal: Precision Livestock Farming and the Ethical Implications of Objectification

Food Ethics 2 (1):77-92 (2018)


Precision livestock farming is the management of livestock using the principles and technology of process engineering. Key to PLF is the dense monitoring of variegated parameters, including animal growth, output of produce, diseases, animal behaviour, and the physical environment. While its proponents consider PLF a win-win strategy that combines production efficiency with sustainability goals and animal welfare, critics emphasise, inter alia, the potential interruption of human-animal relationships. This paper discusses the notion that the objectification of animals by PLF influences the developmental pathways of conventional industrial farming. We conduct a conceptual analysis of objectification by comparing discussions in feminist ethics and animal ethics. We find that in animal ethics, objectification includes deontological arguments regarding instrumentalisation, de-animalisation, alienation, commodification and quantification of animals. The focus on socio-political context and relationality connects these debates to central ideas in care ethics. We adopt a care ethics perspective to assess the implications of the objectification of animals in livestock farming. The basic claim is that sensory knowledge symbolised by the farmers’ unity of hand, head and heart would make it harder to objectify animals than abstract and instrumental reasoning where the pursuit of knowledge is intertwined with the pursuit of control, as in mainstream PLF. Despite of what can be considered as a good caring relationship between farmers and animals that is mediated by PLF, people involved in conventional industrial farming still seem to become further detached from farmers and animals, because the PLF system itself is objectifying. PLF redefines the notion of care, in terms of data transparency, standardisation of methods for analysis, real-time collection and processing of data, remote control, and the use of digital platforms. This creates new expectations and requires a redistribution of responsibilities within a wider scope of relations in the value chain.

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Bernice Bovenkerk
Wageningen University and Research

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