March 16, 2008

Politically Incorrect Ethical Foie Gras?

Real Wild Goose ChaseAn idea that emerged during (where else?) dinner: foie gras is regarded as unethical by many (outside France) because it involves force-feeding the geese. It seems to me that the big problem is the force feeding itself (it seems pretty aversive) rather than the liver changes themselves (they would be a problem if the birds were to life a full lifespan) or that they birds get eaten (if one has a problem with that, then there are clearly much larger issues one ought to deal with).

But what if the birds ate the same amount themselves? If birds get to eat ad libitum they get fat, but apparently not fat enough to produce quality foie gras. There have been experiments trying to destroy the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (!), but the weight gain seems to be temporary (Aufray et al. 1970, 1973).

But then I recalled the Prader-Willi syndrome (mosly because of a CSI episode). One of the effects of the syndrome is excessive appetite, which seems like just the thing for getting geese to stuff themselves. It occurs due to erroneous imprinting of the SNRPN gene. That gene seems to have homologues in Arabidopsis and rice, so I would guess something similar would be found in geese (but see also (Dünzinger, Haaf &Zechner 2007)). In mouse models the deletion at least produces the overeating, although it may stunt growth.

The solution to the cruelty problem is pretty obvious: just induce Prader-Willi in geese, keep them on a healthy diet until a few weeks before slaughter, and let them finish their lives in (and as) gastronomical delight.

Of course, since GMOs are a no-no to Europeans (who would like their food to be both gene- and atom-free) we can't just insert the right deletion or antisense in the birds. Instead we have to do this using breeding. Here genetic screening can be used: it would likely be relatively cheap to develop a test to run through the normal goose population to find the naturally occuring Prader-Willi geese and then breed them. If we are unlucky and there is no counterpart (after all, our lineages diverged 288 million years ago) selective breeding can still find overeating birds and select for them. Given that weight setpoints likely are fairly easy to change evolutionarily, this might be a very useful strategy (it might also avoid some of the other Prader-Willi pathologies, which presumably decrease welfare).

In the end, we get geese happily overeating, gourmets happily eating the birds and animal rights people can deal with some other problem, right? :-) Somehow I doubt that.

The interesting ethical issue here is of course whether it is OK to deliberately create animals that have interests that are not entirely in their own long-term interest. If it was just that they served human interests it would have been a relatively standard discussion about animal welfare and whether we have a right to mess with nature. But here the geese would want (to the extent geese want things) to overeat, although it would be bad for their long-term health in terms of liver damage or (human) predation. However, this state is not too unlike how many of us humans suffer too high weight setpoints and, despite our vaunted autonomy, have a hard time avoiding overeating (so far, two chocolate pralines just this post; is there someone sharpening an axe nearby?).

I think the guiding principle for enhancing or modifying animals should be that they do not decrease the welfare of the animals, regardless of what the overall end is. So these hypothetical geese would likely have better lives than their current counterparts as long as they live within the farming system that keeps their food intake under control. People who put a value on the naturalness of animals and their lives would likely see this as something negative, but consequentialists would instead see it as something neutral or positive. In fact, breeding animals better adapted to farming can be a way of improving their welfare.

In the end I think much of the delight for those who enjoy foie gras (I have tried and was not too excited) is the traditionalness rather than the taste and texture. By making it more rare, exclusive and controversial the activists are actually contributing to its taste. After all, guilt is a great spice - ah, my third chocolate praline...


Aufray, P., Marcilloux, J.C., Bahy, C., Blum, J.C., 1973. Hyperphagie induite chez l’oie par injections intraventriculaires de 6-hydroxydopamine. C.R. Acad. Sci., 276, 347-350.

Aufray, P., Blum, J.C., 1970. Hyperphagie et stéatose hépatique chez l’oie après lésion du noyau ventro-médian de l’hypothalamus. C.R. Acad. Sci., 270, 2362-2365.

Dünzinger, T. Haaf, U. Zechner, Conserved synteny of mammalian imprinted genes in chicken, frog, and fish genomes, Cytogenet Genome Res 2007;117:78-85

Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, Welfare Aspects of the Production of Foie Gras in Ducks and Geese, 1998

Posted by Anders3 at March 16, 2008 10:13 PM