The Belgian Blue Cattle Debate
The Quest for Ethical Genetic Experimentation
Belgian Blue cattle originated in Belgium as the product of crossbreeding between local red-pied and black-pied cattle and cattle imported from England in the late 1800s. The breed became recently established with the founding of the Belgian White Blue herd book in 1973 (Lips, Tavenier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve). Modern breeds of Belgian Blue cattle are the creation of genetic engineering conducted by Professor Hanset at an AI Center in Belgium (Oklahoma state website), with the specific goal of expanding the muscular content of the animals as much as possible.
Belgium Blue cattle are characterized by this extreme muscling, known as "double-muscling," the result of a mutation in a myostatin gene that prevents control of muscular growth. This mutation causes extreme over-development of muscle in the cattle, which provides great benefits to producers and consumers, but causes harm to the animals. The continued growth of lean-quality meat sales, despite accompanying ailments due to the cattle's genetically-imposed composition, brings into question how far we as a society should be allowed to alter the natural order to ensure a profit.
There are many advantages to raising the Belgian Blue breed of cattle. First, because of the increased size of the cattle, "double-muscled carcasses have significantly increased muscle mass expressed as retail product yield and produce a leaner product" (Fahrenkrug, Cases, Keele, and Smith). This is a benefit to the producer, who will make a larger profit in sales, and a benefit to the consumer who will gladly buy this leaner, and therefore healthier, product.
However, these cattle are susceptible to many medical complications. Some problems attributed to the Blue Belgium's highly-muscular physique involve macroglossia, which causes a swelling of the tongue that may also interfere with a calf's ability to nurse and cause premature death; congenital articular rigidity, a chronic ailment that affects a calf's ability to stand on its legs, also affecting its ability to nurse; cardio-respiratory problems which can cause death in calves within two days of birth, due to insufficient oxygen intake; and dystocia (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve), which is a general term for birthing complications.
Dystocia is the most common medical complication, and although "factors affecting dystocia are similar in double-muscled cattle to those in non-double-muscled cattle [...] the occurrence of dystocia is greatly increased in double-muscled cows" (Fiems, Campeneere, Caelenbergh, and Boucque). These birthing complications necessitate operative assistance, specifically caesarian sections, which occur in double-muscled cattle as often as 89.5 percent of the time (Fiems, Campeneere, Caelenbergh, Boueque).
This need to undergo constant operations is a topic highly open to ethical criticism. These animals have been bred for specific characteristics which include the inability to safely give birth to healthy offspring. So, in a sense, unhealthy and unnatural breeds are being created for the benefit of commercial producers, with no thought to the discomfort and pain of the animals. It is assumed that "caesareans cause a lot of suffering to the animals, but also that their high incidence is an indication of the excessive instrumentalisation of these animals" (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryvre). Scientists have similarly tried to increase the meat in sheep and pigs by inserting modified growth genes into the animals. This experimentation also resulted in reproductive abnormalities, and "sexual behavior was anomalous; females were anestrous and boars lacked libido" (Rollin). Scientists use animals as instruments to meet their goals, but have little thought as to the resulting harm to the animals in the process. Their creations have produced pigs so unhealthy they have no desire to proliferate, and cattle which have the potential of being mortally harmed each time they give birth.
A way to potentially lessen this occurrence of dystocia would be to cross a Belgian Blue cow with a Holstein or to select for Friesian Holstein cattle. All types of cattle are of comparable weights (at slaughter purebred Belgian Blues weigh around 508 lbs, crossbred Holstein and Belgian Blues weigh around 514 lbs, and purebred Holstein Friesians weigh about 489 lbs), and although both alternate breeds have a high fat percentage (Belgian Blue's have 11.4%, Crossbred Holstein and Belgian Blue's have 21.3%, and Purebred Holstein Friesian's have 25.6%) they also have a lower occurrence of caesarean sections (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve). In one study, Belgian Blue's required caesarean sections in 91.5% of all births, whereas crossbred Holstein and Belgian Blues and purebred Holstein Friesian cattle had a combined frequency of less than 12% (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve).
The line between what genetic alterations are acceptable and those that should be deemed inhumane is open to debate. However, any animal that has been so changed that it is incapable of safely and painlessly reproducing is no longer a natural and healthy animal. Animals should not be created so that any necessary function in their normal lives causes them pain or potential death. Animals should be bred, raised, and treated so that they do not experience any discomfort, and definitely not in a way that we know with certainty that pain and suffering is inevitable for their survival.