The goal, vaguely described, is to place a proposal on California’s November 2008 ballot to “prevent cruelty to calves raised for veal, pigs during pregnancy and egg-laying hens.” No, it’s not a spoof to dramatize voter ineffectuality. Endorsed by four SPCAs — Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles — along with Global Exchange, Julia Butterfly Hill and Step-It-Up guru Bill McKibben, the campaign is out to collect 650,000 signatures by the end of February.
In reality, California has no commercial veal industry, and the measure comes down to the size of confinement areas for laying hens and pregnant pigs — who will still be expected to lay eggs and give birth and, when worn out, go to slaughter. Still, the proposal might sound benign enough — if one puts aside the additional endorsements of several animal ranchers.
The campaign website shows a denim-clad tot in the fresh air, feeding a friendly pig. The scene radiates idealized concepts of animal farms and family values. It’s a formula campaigners have used before: Last November, for example, saw the culmination of a campaign that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Arizona’s Proposition 204, telling the media a “degree of space” for animals to turn in their pens is “all we’re asking for.”1 The Arizona Humane Society’s CEO publicly recommended that shoppers order from Niman Ranch, a pricey, California-based meat market that boasts online shopping and hundreds of family hog farmers.2 Proposition 204 passed; should it survive its seven-year phase-out period, it will mandate a new minimum pen size for pregnant pigs in Arizona. And Bill Niman, founder and chair of Niman Ranch, is now an endorser in the California proposal.
The Humane Society of the United States, spearheading the California campaign, promotes it as the first U.S. proposal to phase out battery cages for egg-laying birds. But what does this mean? Processed foods made with liquid or powdered egg ingredients from outside the state will still be readily available. Meanwhile, in-state producers of eggs in their shells would be selling at premium prices. The Humane Society assures farmers: “There are no close substitutes for eggs, and, as a result, consumers continue to purchase virtually the same number of eggs, even as prices increase.” The Humane Society further suggests that groups of producers could “pass increased costs on to consumers without a loss in profits” and that shoppers, in turn, would increase their yearly spending on eggs anywhere from 65 cents to $8.78.3
Now I fully understand that, contrary to the overblown warnings of corporate front groups, conventional anti-cruelty societies don’t exist to take a stand against commercial enterprises that breed, use, buy and sell animals. But this campaign openly dismisses the very point it claims to promote: reformed conditions. Its fact sheets include this note from the Humane Society: “Consumer perception of animal welfare is likely to be an important factor in producers’ choice of housing systems. For instance, although furnished cages have some welfare advantages over non-cage systems, consumers do not recognize a larger, modified cage as a significant improvement over conventional battery cages.”4
In other words, the campaign doesn’t necessarily assume “cage-free” is better for birds than modified cages; but it promotes the cage-free plan anyway. It’s an easier sell: “Eggs from hens confined in furnished cages,” states the Humane Society’s report, “do not enjoy the market premium of cage-free eggs.”5 So, in the interest of claiming a victory, the campaign perversely relies on an optimistic profit forecast for the purveyors of laying hens and their eggs. Today’s conventional humane movement, we see, has become so controlled by strategy that it can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who support a campaign based on words whose actual meaning may be unknown to them.6
The California ballot measure would — if not overridden by state or federal law by its effective date of 2015 — also place pregnant pigs in something larger than seven-by-two-foot gestation crates. In the same pattern as the egg reports, the Californians for Humane Farms website includes documents covering such points as the profit potential of pregnant pigs with somewhat more space. The modification, says the Humane Society, could reduce farmers’ building investment costs, improve pigs’ bone and muscle growth, reduce stillbirths, and augment the “productivity” of pigs still more by inducing earlier pregnancies.7
Here again, activists note that the modification could lead to a market premium, citing a poll that indicates most Iowa consumers would “buy pork products from food companies whose suppliers raise and process their hogs only under humane and environmentally sound conditions.”8 In short: Space will be allowed by the ranchers to the extent that space will be paid for by the customers.
And what of those “environmentally sound conditions”? From an environmental perspective, expanding the space taken up for animal agribusiness makes little sense. And it doesn’t address the substantial emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and other dangerous effects of the industry. A vegan living in the United States will generate about a ton and a half less greenhouse gas this year than an omnivore consuming the same amount of calories. There’s a key message there. Yet across the planet, animal agribusiness is on the rise; and at its behest, forests, indigenous cultures, and free-living animals are all pushed aside.
On top of this comes a new trend in the affluent world known as compassionate carnivorism, one of whose leading stars is Michael Pollan, a former executive editor for Harper’s, and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Pollan became interested in the topic because of health and animal-welfare concerns, and wrote, “If I was going to continue to eat red meat, then I owed it to myself, as well as to the animals, to take more responsibility for the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat. I’d try to own it, in other words.”9
Pollan bought a calf. And Pollan chronicled the growth of the calf from nursing until the end of it all, at 14 months of age.
“Staring at No. 534,” wrote Pollan, “I could picture the white lines of the butcher’s chart dissecting his black hide: rump roast, flank steak, standing rib, brisket.”
Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University, has impressed Pollan as “one of the most influential people in the United States cattle industry.” Grandin “has devoted herself to making cattle slaughter less stressful and therefore more humane by designing an ingenious series of cattle restraints, chutes, ramps and stunning systems.” Grandin is also cited in the fact sheets prepared by the Humane Society and linked to the Californians for Humane Farms’ website.
Time magazine tells us “more consumers across the country are buying meat labelled as coming from humanely raised animals” and that activists, in turn, want a “federal law to end cruelty to farm animals.”10 But federal law can’t do that; nor can state ballots. As the human population continues to rise, as biofuels compete with agricultural land, as energy and water become concentrated in fewer hands, mass production will be the norm, in California and everywhere else. Only a select few will have the opportunity to trace what Pollan euphemistically calls “the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat.”
The only way to stop oppressing farm animals is to stop having them. For Californians, the activism should be less about what goes into the ballot box, and more about what goes into the bakeware.
* Lee Hall co-authored (with Priscilla Feral) the cookbook Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine, available from Friends of Animals, which Lee serves as legal director. The book contains easy-to-follow recipes for breads, soups and dips, salads and raw delights, and main courses, and desserts as eggless as they are timeless.
- Howard Fischer (Capitol Media Services), “Prop. 204 Foe: Non-Farmers Don’t Understand,” Arizona Daily Star (23 Oct. 2006), quoting Cheryl Naumann, CEO of the Arizona Humane Society. [↩]
- Ibid., again quoting Cheryl Naumann of the Arizona Humane Society. [↩]
- “An HSUS Report: The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Battery Cages” (as visited at the Californians for Humane Farms website on 12 Nov. 2007; internal citations omitted). [↩]
- “An HSUS Report: The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Battery Cages” (see note 3 above). [↩]
- According to the HSUS report, consumers will pay “an average of between 17- to 60-percent more for eggs from non-cage systems.” Ibid. [↩]
- The Humane Society’s report also cites a 2004 Golin/Harris poll for the United Egg Producers, in which most people surveyed said they’d pay extra for eggs with an “Animal Care Certified” label — even “without any information about what the label actually meant.” See “The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Battery Cages” (note 3 above). [↩]
- “An HSUS Report: The Economics of Adopting Alternative Production Systems to Gestation Crates” (as visited at the Californians for Humane Farms website on 12 Nov. 2007; internal citations omitted). [↩]
- Ibid., citing a 2003 Hill Research Consultants poll for the Humane Society of the United States. [↩]
- Michael Pollan, “Power Steer,” New York Times Magazine (31 Mar. 2002). [↩]
- Margot Roosevelt, “Campaign ’06: Treating Pigs Better in Arizona,” Time (6 Nov. 2006). [↩]