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Monday, October 27, 2008

Making Sense of the Muckslinging

The Agribusiness Big Shots opposing Proposition 2 are spewing out so much manure that it’s hard to keep up on this blog alone. And I don’t just mean the literal manure which is illegally dumped into local water supplies, and which is piling up to give their neighbors sore throats, headaches, and respiratory problems. I mean the figurative manure—the lies and deceptions they are dumping on California voters.

One of their fattest fibs is the idea that there is no veal or pork industry in California, so Prop 2 is really just about chickens. Oh really? Then why have a dozen pork producer associations from all over the country funneled money into the political committee opposing Prop 2?

184x265_pig_face_usda So far, donations have come not only from the National Pork Producers Council and the California Pork Producers Association, but also from the pork industry trade groups in Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania—for a combined total of $89,500. Add to that another $50,000 from the American Farm Bureau Federation, and more than $46,000 from state and county farm bureaus.

Why would these groups dump big money into the campaign if they didn’t see it as a serious threat? As the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Pasadena Star-News pointed out, “it turns out that there are indeed large hog farms in California—one up north has at least 9,000 sows in cages with no room for the mother pigs to move, and that sounds like a lot of pigs to us.”

It’s true that some of the nation’s largest pork and veal producers—like Smithfield Foods, Cargill, Strauss Veal, and Marcho Farms—have begun to transition some of their gestation crates and veal crates to group housing systems for sows and calves. But that only happened after Florida and Arizona voters passed ballot measures to ban crates. And it’s true that Corcpork—a massive hog factory farm in Corcoran, Calif.—has begun to phase out gestation crates. But that only occurred after California volunteers started gathering signatures to place Prop 2 on the ballot.

We need public policies like Prop 2 to spur change in the marketplace. And we need laws on the books that prevent the industrialization of factory farming from getting worse in the future. A massive hog farm could set up shop with a million pigs in gestation crates overnight, and who in California wants their state to become the next Iowa or North Carolina with the cruel confinement, air pollution, and water contamination that comes along with that status? Since California is one of the nation’s top dairy states—and dairy cows produce calves in order to produce milk—a thriving veal industry in the state’s future is not far-fetched.

It also puts to the test another big lie from Big Agribusiness—that if Prop 2 passes, California farmers would be put out of business and consumers would be forced to purchase products trucked in from other states. Donald Lathbury summed it up best in the California Majority Report, when he asked why out-of-state factory farms would spend millions of dollars opposing a measure that they argue would increase their own market share. He wrote:

Something doesn’t fit here. Maybe, just maybe, the outside egg producers that have dominated the finances of the No campaign are afraid that the old adage, “as California goes, so goes the nation,” applies in this situation. And if that’s the case, then far from exporting our egg production to other states, Prop 2 actually exports our more humane farming practices to other states, hence the fervent opposition from folks who love to squeeze as much profit as they can from stuffing six-to-eight hens in cages so small that they cannot turn around or expand their wings. After all, if they don’t have the basic decency to treat the animals in their possession with that minimal level of respect, why would they be so generous as to throw so many golden eggs into the basket of their competitors time zones away for a proposition that the opposition claims will help those same out-of-state producers’ business?

The logic of the talking point doesn’t add up, but the adding up of checks from out-of-state factory farms continues unabated. The only question that remains is whether California voters will see through this shell game on election day.

It’s clear that the factory farm executives see the writing on the wall, and they know they can no longer get away with treating animals like commodities and widgets, like nothing more than meat, milk, and egg-producing machines. Consumers and voters are demanding better, and major retailers like Burger King and Safeway are increasingly asking producers to raise their standards for animal welfare.

But that doesn’t mean the factory farms are going down without a fight—as evidenced by the big money donations to the anti-Prop 2 campaign. They’ve proven that they are able to adapt to more humane farming methods, but that it takes public policies and public opinion before they will change their miserly ways. A vote of YES! on Prop 2 will usher in these much-needed reforms.


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