The Future Of Animal Health: How Digital Technologies Reconfigure Animal Healthcare In Farming

The Future Of Animal Health: How Digital Technologies Reconfigure Animal Healthcare In Farming

Camille Bellet

Many networks are now involved in defining the rules and norms of animal health practices in farming. Not only veterinarians and farmers, but also scientists, industries and policy makers participate with their discourses and technologies in what is and should be health and wellbeing of farmed animals. The complexification of networks that guide animal health practices on-farm has, however, recently accelerated with the development of electronic communications facilitated by the new information and digital technologies.

Within the debate on precision agriculture, digital health technologies have become an integral part of the solution for a much desired harmony and prosperity in animal production systems. Praised as the third green revolution, these technologies have the potential, it is argued, to greatly increase the control of quality, safety, and cost-effectiveness of animal healthcare  towards healthier, ethical and sustainable systems of food production, including ones that would reduce the threat of antimicrobial resistance.

At the very heart of digital health stands ‘data’, ‘surveillance’ and ‘interconnectivity’. In the particular context of animal farming, animal carers such as farmers and veterinarians, animal health scientists, the industry and policy-makers are able to constantly access and exchange data through digital devices to monitor animal health and wellbeing in real time, diagnostic diseases, and deliver rapid and targeted treatments to animals.

This digital revolution of animal healthcare makes animal health and wellbeing more interactive in the sense that friendly and fit for purpose information is directly accessible to a broad range of stakeholders both from within and outside the farm. For instance, ‘non-invasive’ wearable sensors are now able to remotely connect animals to farmers, veterinarians, industries, policy makers, and potentially the public via mobile apps, tablets, and computer health systems that translate and communicate information on animal health and wellbeing.

As such, no need to spend more time, effort and money to control, test and report on animal conditions in person at the risk of stress, injury, contamination and mistakes; information and digital technologies will do it for us remotely, and, even, more accurately. But, if one of the reasons for digital health technologies is to offer more attention and care to animals on-farm and ensure their health and wellbeing, we might wonder what such distant care fostered by digital technologies may allow.

Healthcare as profit
Health technologies are generally positioned as means to promote animal health and wellbeing, improve animal healthcare while also improving farm productivity and reducing health-related costs. Since the Second World War, animal health technologies—and their associated practices in farming—have, however, been fundamental to supporting the intensification of farming systems and cheap production of food. Instead of being part of ‘new processes’, these technologies have participated in what the historian Donald Worster calls the “reorganisation of natural processes for agricultural purposes” and have shaped practices of animal healthcare in farming.

As they become integrated into farming practices, health technologies and processes—such as breed and feed selection, drugs, vaccines, sanitation and house ventilation—transform animal bodies and farmers’ activities, rearranging spaces, logics and dynamics of routine farming. They also reconfigure forms of human-animal relations, communications, and responsibility between those shaping animal healthcare such as farmers, animal health scientists and veterinarians.

The move towards standardised, integrated and technology-dependent animal health has been evident and rapid in systems of intensive farming, and has made aspects such as time, money, and feelings of fear critical to the governance of animal healthcare. Overall, health technologies have played an important role in maintaining the assumption that there are no limits to productivist farming and have participated in building the animal machine in systems of intensive farming. Complementing longstanding health technologies such as drugs, vaccines and breed selection, ‘digital technologies’ are today embraced as a new paradigm for anticipating, managing and controlling animal body and health conditions framed as ‘faulty’.

Building the animal machine
The concept of animal machine or animal machines, in plural, was first articulated by Ruth Harrison in 1964 in her critical analysis of the then ‘new factory farming industry’. Her analysis touches upon issues of animal welfare, but is primarily focused on the assemblage of food cultures such as the fast food factory, farming practices and health technologies, which she examines in detail for the cases of chicken and cattle rearing in Great Britain.

The concept of animal machine intersects with that of Donna Haraway’s cyborg from the 1980s. As Haraway puts it in the introduction of her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:

 “…a cyborg is a hybrid creature, composed of organism and machine. But, cyborgs are compounded of special kinds of machines and special kinds of organisms appropriate to the late twentieth century. Cyborgs are post-Second World War hybrid entities made of, first, ourselves and other organic creatures in our unchosen ‘high technological’ guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled labouring, desiring and reproducing systems. The second essential ingredient in cyborgs is machines in their guise, also, as communications systems, text, and self-acting, ergonomically designed apparatuses.”

Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg helps to situate questions around the animal body, health, and technologies, into broader considerations of the production of knowledge around, and the meanings of, animal health and wellbeing in farming. In other words, her concept allows us to focus our attention to the importance of the ‘how’, ‘with what’ and ‘by who’, knowledge around animal health, wellbeing and technological innovation is produced, as well as the importance of the ‘when’, ‘in which context’ and ‘for which purposes’. In doing so, scientific processes that build stories around animal health, health management and wellbeing are relocated within the political and cultural context that generate and give meaning to them.

Digital transformation as a possible animal transgression
The struggle of expert identity and authority by scientists and veterinarians associated with the struggle of values and priorities by farmers in the management of animal health are fundamental for the emergence and resilience of the animal machine as a cyborg and the assemblage of intensive farming systems.

Within a co-production mechanism, these struggles only exist because intensive farming works as an ideal sociotechnical ecosystem that allows for the animal-machine to ‘reproduce’ itself through two fundamental mechanisms. First, the presence of illness and disease due, for instance, to animal confinement, scales of production, and breed selection. Second, the standardisation and routinisation of healthcare, which follows from the standardisation of production, as in factory-based models.

Critical animal studies have so far had a limited take on the broad topic of ‘animal health’. While they have focused much of our attention on animal welfare, as one of the many components of animal health, and have produced a wealth of research on companion animals, other aspects of animal health within the context of farmed animals—such as infrastructures and routine treatments—have been much less studied. Farming has been neglected as a context and a sub-field of ‘critical animal health studies’ or ‘critical studies in animal health’ is yet to be developed. As put by Ruth Harrison back in 1964, it is not possible to divorce critical studies in animal health from animal production, particularly in intensive farming systems.

In the words of Deleuze, the animal machine is, in the farming context, ‘social before being technical’ as a human technology first imagined on paper to fulfil certain functions or requirements of food cultures and markets. However, once this abstract machine is taken up by the farming assemblage, where practices intersect with health technologies, it becomes materialised in ways that contribute to the resilience and further development of these practices and technologies, as well of those cultures and markets within which they are embedded.

Returning to the idea of Haraway’s cyborg, for Haraway, two forms of cyborg exist: the ‘material cyborg’ and the ‘metaphorical cyborg’. The material cyborg would be in our case the medicalised body of the animal that is standardised, normalised by health technologies to serve the interests of the food, pharmaceutical and biomedical industries. On the other hand, the metaphorical cyborg would be the figure that, for Haraway, challenges the pre-defined assumptions and social order of the material cyborg. In this way, the metaphorical cyborg invites transformation and transgression. However, the challenge for us, and what should be the normative commitment of critical studies in animal health, is to understand how the animal cyborg, or the animal machine, in farming can be transgressive.


Camille Bellet is Research Associate at the Institute of Infection and Global Health, University of Liverpool. She has a background in veterinary science, epidemiology and public health. Her research interests include the sociology and politics of animal health, animal health science and animal healthcare in farming.

Image Credit: Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0