The Mootrix: could VR simulations substitute access to pasture for cows?

We all remember The Matrix, the cyberpunk sci-fi action film which took the world by storm upon its release in 1999.

The premise of the film, that we are living in a simulated hyper-reality of which we are unaware, our human bodies used as an energy source by sentient machines, has its roots in the postmodern philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, and the idea that simulations of reality may become indistinguishable from reality itself: “The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

While the film’s plot revolves around humans who become aware of their captivity and rebel against it, in the real world, it is the human race that has enslaved animals by the billions for our benefit, depriving them of their natural environment and treating them with the same consideration as any other industrial mass production. For decades the proportion of livestock who pass their days confined indoors in cramped spaces has increased, and their conditions have worsened in tandem with the insatiable human greed for meat, milk, and profit.

It’s no surprise that the milk of pasture-raised cows who spend as much time as possible grazing out in the open is more nutritious and more delicious than the milk of factory-farm cows raised in ‘concentrated animal feeding operations’ on a synthetic diet of corn, soy and excessive antibiotics. Agro-industrial farmers know it and admit it, as evidenced by a recent research project in Russia that sought to improve the milk quality of dairy cows through the use of virtual reality glasses that simulate “a summer field”. Enter the mootrix?

While the veracity of the study is in doubt (it was not conducted by a university or research institution but by Milknews, a news organ for the Russian dairy industry that analyzes the “events and trends of the agro-industrial complex”), it would be short-sighted to dismiss the story as “fake news”. The story was published on the official Ministry of Agriculture website, and invites readers to participate in a discussion of the “introduction of modern technologies in dairy production” at the 6th International Agricultural Dairy Forum, organized by that same ministry as well as the Government of the Moscow Region. But to what end?

To put this news-propaganda into more context, we must think about the intended audience and implication of the message. After the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014 a series of sanctions were imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union, which were met with further counter-sanctions by the Russian government in the same year, which remain in effect today. One of the products affected was dairy products, for which EU exports to Russia prior to the sanctions had a total annual value of €1.4 billion.

© Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Moscow Region

These sanctions are due to end in January 2020, so it makes senses that the two sides are preparing for negotiations over future business. Might these Matrix-cows be a signal to Europe and other exporters that the Russian domestic dairy industry is larger and healthier than ever, less in need of European imports, and therefore not willing to pay the full asking price for the premium products that Russian consumers have learned well to live without?

European exporters may be willing to take a hit to their profits in order to secure access to the once-lucrative Russian market because of another turn of events which has hit the world economy in the meantime. In October 2019, the Trump administration of the United States finalized a WTO-approved set of tariffs on $7.5 billion of EU products, including cheese and dairy products.

While the tendencies towards protectionism and tariffs in the world economy may seem reminiscent of the 19th century, the underlying logic of the profit motive is just as powerful and all-pervading as ever, and there is nothing necessarily progressive in these developments. The environment, small-scale producers and billions of animals continue to suffer as the food system (or rather, multiple food systems) force an unhealthy, restricted diet based on the wholesale exploitation of domesticated animals whose welfare is always secondary to the balance sheet. Indeed, were it a remotely believable and practicable concept, the only motive for trapping domesticated animals in VR would be to extract more profit for their human owners.

Whatever the truth of the study conducted by the farmers of RusMoloko farm outside Moscow—and we retain strong doubts of it being anything more than a mistimed April Fool’s joke—whatever the intended message and audience, it is symptomatic of a wider social malaise. Our willingness to even entertain the idea of trapping animals in a simulated reality so that they may better serve our interests as providers of meat and milk is diabolical; cows should not live in factory farms. Though it is anathema to the agro-industrial complex and the stock market, the only solution to make cows happier is to raise and eat significantly less of them, including their dairy products, and to allow the cows we do raise the dignity of a life outdoors. The alternative is there in The Matrix: where the cows replace the humans, and the evil machines are us.

by Jack Coulton

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