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June 30, 2009

Betting the Farm Against Reforms

There are two groups that politicians fawn over in ways that make sensible people shake their heads: the gun lobby and agribusiness. First, let me say that I have no problem with private ownership of firearms, but I do think there should be reasonable regulations (e.g., a prohibition on the sale of machine guns). But it’s the gun lobby’s defense of captive hunts, bear baiting, polar bear trophy hunting, carrying firearms in national parks, and other extremist positions that defy common sense and common decency. Regarding agriculture, I am a fan and a consumer, like everybody else who wants a square meal. But again, there must be some limits on conduct, especially when it comes to the care of animals used for meat, egg, and milk production.

Cows grazing on grass
© SXC/merlijn72

The political reputations of the gun lobby and of agribusiness are way of out of proportion with their numbers and actual voter influence, yet there is some mythic notion of their electoral clout. We’ve proved that it’s overblown in head-to-head fights with them in state ballot initiatives, where we have typically prevailed by wide margins. But today, I’ll deal with the agribusiness industry, perhaps because the issues are top of mind, having just finished an appearance on an agricultural radio program today and watching with astonishment as a couple of agriculture policy issues have played out in Ohio and in Congress within the last week.

For starters, in Ohio, The HSUS has publicly discussed the prospect of launching a campaign to phase out the confinement of veal calves, breeding pigs, and laying hens in small crates and cages on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or as they’re more commonly called, factory farms—similar to our ballot initiative, Proposition 2, which both rural and urban Californians overwhelmingly approved last year. Despite entreaties from The HSUS, the Ohio Farm Bureau refused to engage in any negotiations to find a political solution to the conflict over these confinement systems, unlike more foresighted agriculture groups in Colorado and Maine where they engaged in actual compromise.

Instead of having a serious sit-down with us, the Farm Bureau hatched a plan with lawmakers to try to thwart the prospective initiative. And in an act of willful obedience, the Legislature approved a resolution in two days that places a measure on the November 2009 ballot to amend the constitution to create an industry-dominated council that will decide all rules related to farm animal handling. It’s a transparent attempt to forestall an initiative, codify industry norms, and to place a handful of people—nearly all of whom are expected to support the status quo—in charge of all farm animal welfare rules and to let the CAFOs operate without further limits.

Mind you, the Legislature passed this resolution to amend the constitution in two days—faster, in legislative terms, than a greased pig could slip through your hands. There were hearings and votes in the House and Senate agriculture committees on the same day—suggesting that the hearings were just a pro forma exercise. And both chambers passed the bills the day after they came out of committees. It was as if the resolutions were a pile of particularly foul-smelling manure and they wanted them out of the building as fast as possible. Lest you think they’re just quick workers there in Columbus, this is the same legislative body that has for years been sitting on and not acting on legislation to strengthen one of the five weakest anti-cockfighting laws in the country, to crack down on rampant puppy mills, and to halt the private ownership of dangerous wild animals as pets. When it comes to stopping cruelty, they really take their time, but when it comes to the wishes of agribusiness, they get the job done with war-time efficiency.

But what’s going on at the federal level is as remarkable, particularly as it relates to historic climate change legislation, which narrowly passed the House on Friday and faces a steep climb in the Senate. Agriculture groups and their allies in the Congress threatened to block the legislation unless agriculture was completely exempt from an accounting of its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation doesn’t just exempt CAFOs and other farms from the cap on greenhouse gas emissions, it also rewards them by allowing them to sell carbon credits to other emitters. In an effort to pass the broader legislation, Democratic leaders counted the votes and gave a complete pass to agriculture even though, according to the United Nation’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow, animal agriculture contributes 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. In the U.S., that percentage may be a little lower, but the principle is the same—agriculture is part of the climate change picture, but the community doesn’t want to do its fair share to address the problem. Unbelievably, even after Big Agriculture won these concessions in the process, they are still opposing the bill!

As the climate legislation was being debated, lawmakers aligned with agribusiness also tried to prevent, through the Interior Appropriations bill, the Environmental Protection Agency from making an accounting of the greenhouse gas emissions of CAFOs in America. The House Appropriations Committee voted narrowly to tie EPA’s hands, but thanks to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a similar effort was fended off in the Senate. That issue will continue to play out as the Interior bill moves forward.

In the end, this is all about accountability. Industrial agriculture groups want no government rules when it comes to their treatment of animals, or their role in climate change. That’s not an acceptable position, it’s not supported by the vast majority of Americans, and you can bet they’ll get a fight from us as these issues play out in the months and years ahead.

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