As many of you may have recognized from the catbox, one of the things I am very passionate
about is animal agriculture. The fight for animal welfare and animal rights in the face of the food animal industry is something that is ongoing and is unlikely to fade any time in the near future. There are those
that would have us completely abolish the rearing of animals for any type of food product, citing inhumane practice and unnatural technique employment. On the other side there are people who view animals merely as breathing meat, which will be rectified soon enough. They couldn't care less about what happens to their food before it hits the plate. Somewhere in the middle
is a life of relative dignity for an animal that is ultimately going to serve as prey for another, and a reasonable method of procurement for today's carnivore.
On November 4th, California voters will take to the polls to elect a new president, a new host of other representatives, and several propositions that will alter California law. One such ballot issue will be Proposition 2: Standards For Confining Farm Animals. This statute will grant farm animals, namely breeding sows, veal calves, and laying hens, to be "confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely". Exceptions to this statue will include animals in transport to rodeos, fairs and 4H events, those on their way to lawful slaughter, and those used in research or for veterinary purposes. Persons found in violation of this statue will be eligible for fines up to $1000 and imprisonment for up to 180 days.
This proposal is frightening to me on many levels. If I were to live in California, I would vote no against this in a heartbeat, and I am hoping that all you California noders will as well. This is not because I am a merciless, cruel, and murder-minded person. This is not because I don't think farm animals are due a better life than the ones they have now. The problem is that this is not really about farm animals. This is about people -- farmers, farm laborers, and consumers.
This idea honestly sounds good on the surface. Why shouldn't we help animals who may be suffering cramped quarters and allow them to get a little wing room? Why would we continue to raise animals in a system that may be a little unsavory? This proposal fails to answer some very basic questions about the aftermath of its enactment. I am not in California, but I wonder if some of the most obvious holes in information have been filled any better there.
First off, we must recognize that California has no appreciable veal or pork market, meaning that this proposal is aiming almost directly at egg-producing hens, a market in which California is not an unimportant figure. California is currently the 5th largest egg-producing state with 18.3 million active laying hens. This is great, considering California also happens to be the nation's biggest consumer of eggs. The industry is projected to earn $337 million dollars in a year. However, poultry farming in and of itself is not a lucrative business. The only way it is able to maintain itself profitably is through large-scale and efficient streamlined production. Currently in California and across the nation, this is done through the use of battery cages for laying hens. Hens are placed several to a cage and are kept in houses that may contain several thousands of birds. The caging system generally prevents animals from interacting with each other and their own feces, as well as protecting eggs from contamination by allowing laid eggs to drop onto a conveyor belt that rolls them away before they can become soiled. This is at the rather unpleasant cost of an unnatural laying habitat and very cramped quarters for the hens.
So, the proposal tackles the heartstrings issue by focusing on the plight of the hens. What the measure fails to mention is the economic implications not just for the farmer, but for the entire state if it comes to pass. Currently, the proposition only mentions that there will be unknown economic implications due to the enactment of this proposal. There is no language indicating that farmers would be subsidized to purchase and install new larger cages, or to replace their losses from removing birds from cages which are full. There is no mention of providing the farmer more land or availability to materials to build more houses, so that he can get his flock up to the level at which it was sustainable in the market. There is no mention of what payments will be made to the farmer when his enterprise fails due to the much greater cost of labor, land, sanitation, and veterinary costs. Chickens who are given more space are also chickens that can peck each other, get caught on cages, or ingest parasites and pathogens in the environment. According to research done by the University of California Agricultural Issues Unit, thousands of jobs can be lost and the egg market in California will be subject to relocation to the larger egg producing states, with increased import from said states and possibly foreign countries.
The actual price impact on Californians would likely be minimal -- about a cent an egg in increased cost. However, the cost to the farmers and their laborers may be catastrophic. How exactly would you go about telling them to restart their lives in our current economy? The money lost due these job losses and relocations will range into the tens of millions. Unfortunately, this does not just affect caged producers. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of California egg farmers have moved to an organic, free range, and/or cage-free system. These people are able to turn a profit only because there is a niche market willing to accept their products. If the entirety of the industry was turned to this method of production, there is a possibility of the collapse of their niche. Maybe the failure of the greater industry and loss of that industry will maintain this little nidus in food production, but perhaps not.
The tentacles put forth by this type of sweeping reform are long-reaching. Some states have already passed laws banning gestation crates and regulating restriction of veal. However, no such limitations have yet been placed on the egg industry. One of the reasons the bill has been able to raise several millions of dollars in opposition is the concern of egg producers in other parts of the country. They see, rightly, the threat of this sort of reform sweeping the nation and threatening the industry throughout the country. The president of the Humane Society of the United States, a main proponent of the bill, has gone so far as to express disbelief that egg producers in other states would not be thrilled at the prospect of the California market floundering. Beyond the fact that this level of callousness from one human being (a purported supporter of humane treatment for animals) toward others is simply astounding, he fails to recognize the implications for the industry at large. Successful passage breeds more attempts at reform, and will consequently lead to more initiatives in more states. This tactic has already been attempted in other states, where the banning of practices not currently even in practice in the area sets a precedent which can be modeled in other states with an interest in production. I'm sure the one pig farmer in Arizona who was forced to obey their passed gestation crate law was unaffected by the regulation, but imagine the eyes such a law opens in actual pork-producing states. Any, and potentially all of these, can lead to a collapse in the area in which they are enacted.
There is no way to come back from a total industrial collapse without huge bailouts from the government and a rise in consumer price. While a rise of, say, 30 cents per dozen may be acceptable to some, it is completely unacceptable to others. The people who are not using eggs as a luxury item are exactly the sort of people who cannot afford for their food production prices to rise in addition to losing their job, fighting rising gas prices, and the potential foreclosure of their homes. The demand from these people will force importation to rise to defer costs, and imports will come from the cheapest source. Opponents of the bill, such as Californians for Safe Food, have suggested that importation of eggs from Mexico could have Salmonella issues that may cause severe illness in many people. I am not sure I buy this, but the point is raised that other countries do not have the same standards of safety and regulation that we have here. It is not impossible that things which would normally not meet our manufacturing standards would enter the food chain via this route.
The point I am trying to raise is not that we should deter all attempts at animal rights. It's true that the lives of many food animals are not always picturesque or enjoyable. However, the reality is that our system of animal production is currently set up to function in a certain way, and no amount of laws passed by people with legitimately good intentions can underwrite and reverse those practices without appropriate government and community support. What is needed is a well-thought, well-planned and well-funded effort enacted to enhance welfare. What is absolutely counter-intuitive and more than likely extremely damaging to our nation is to force requirements upon growers with no support or aid. In its current incarnation, California's Proposition 2 is a proposition with lofty goals that is destined to fail, just as the EU directive on the same topic is failing. The idea is laudable, but the execution is terrible. The true crime and true travesty here is that the standard of living for most farm animals will not greatly increase due to these measures, but the quality of life of the farmers and their employees will almost surely decrease.
For all of these reasons, California voters, I urge you to vote NO on Proposition 2 tomorrow. In the coming days, when it comes to your state, noders, I hope you too will refrain from supporting a bill based only on sentiment and devoid of fact and implementation protocols. This is not a vote against animal rights, but merely a vote against a flimsy piece of legislation. When the time comes to vote on a proposition that allows animals to lead a better quality of life and enjoy what time they have, without the potential for devastation of an already beleaguered public sector, I would hope that you could support that. But ask yourself, truly, if that time has come before you place your ballot.
That's my two cents. I'll be waiting on the polls.
All cites and sources withheld in an effort to have you search the material yourself. If you can't find it, please feel free to ask me. Otherwise, I hope you take the time to learn as much as you can about the issues in animal agriculture today. As stated, I am not a California resident, so if you feel I've made some egregious error, let me know that, as well.
For reference, Proposition 2 was passed in California. It is ironic that this statute granting greater rights to animals was passed at the same time that Proposition 8 took freedoms away from people. A+ California.