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October 02, 2009

A Tale of Two States

It was the best of policy decisions, it was the worst of policy decisions, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of compromise, it was the epoch of dogmatism.

That’s what Charles Dickens might have said if he compared how the agriculture industry handled the call for reform in two neighboring Midwest states—Michigan and Ohio.

Yesterday, the Michigan House of Representatives sent a bill on to Gov. Jennifer Granholm to phase out the use of veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages—after the Senate passed it unanimously. It was a compromise measure, chiseled after arduous negotiations, between The HSUS—working closely with the Michigan Humane Society and Farm Sanctuary—and Michigan agriculture groups, including the Michigan Agri-Business Association, Michigan Pork Producers Association, and Michigan Allied Poultry Industries. Legislative leaders, especially Rep. Pam Byrnes and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Simpson, brought all parties to the table and helped forge consensus.

Egg-laying hens in battery cage
Compassion Over Killing

The bill that Granholm is expected to sign in the coming days is very similar in design to Proposition 2, the landmark California initiative that voters approved by a wide margin to phase out the use of some of the most extreme confinement systems in industrial agriculture. Under the soon-to-be-enacted Michigan law, veal operators will have three years to phase out crates, while in California under Prop 2, they have six years. But Michigan pig and egg farmers have 10 years to phase out their respective cage confinement systems, while the industries in California have six years. Michigan will be the seventh state to adopt restrictions on certain confinement systems for animal agribusiness, but it will be, with California, one of the two strongest measures. After California, it is the second state to commit to phasing out the use of battery cages for laying hens.

Both sides compromised and it wasn’t easy. It took hard work, a lot of meetings between stakeholders, and a spirit of cooperation and accommodation from all groups involved. But we all agreed that moving away from systems that confine animals in small cages and crates was the right thing to do and something of an inevitability, given the rapidly changing views of Americans on the inhumane treatment of farm animals.

But in Ohio, where The HSUS made similar entreaties to the agriculture industry, state agriculture leaders wouldn’t even engage in dialogue. Instead, they worked with their allies in the Legislature to place a measure on the ballot for this November that would amend the state constitution to create an all-powerful livestock board that would almost certainly insulate agriculture from having to confront its ethical challenges with these confinement devices that permit so little movement. Today, the Dayton Daily News urged voters to oppose the measure, Issue 2, arguing:

“Should Ohio have a board, set in the constitution, to decide agriculture policy, thereby insulating some decisions from the give-and-take that is required on other big and small public policy issues?

“Sometimes the creation of a board is necessary, but this one’s power would be too sweeping. Moreover, no need for change has been demonstrated. After all these years without a special board, it’s a good bet the state can continue without one. Vote no on Issue 2.”

In Michigan, there will not be a ballot initiative, costly to both sides, on the subject of the humane treatment of animals raised for food. Instead, there is a pathway to reform, but a time frame that allows farmers to make a transition away from the most inhumane confinement systems. In Ohio, both sides will now likely be forced to spend millions of dollars, as agriculture demands that it be allowed indefinitely to continue to cram feeling animals into small cages—the moral equivalent of fitting a round peg into a square hole.

Americans want farmers to succeed, but they want them to play by the rules. They want them to treat animals decently. And with the entire European Union moving in this direction, and now more than a half-dozen states, including neighboring Michigan, doing the same, it’s not a question of ability. It’s just now a matter of obstinacy and a failure to recognize that society now expects more of them.

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