Friday, August 13, 2010

Limiting confinement feeding operations

Its state fair time, for those of us lucky enough to live in a state with a strong state fair tradition.  For many of us, attending the state fair may be the closest we ever get to the animals who provide us with meat, eggs, and milk.  Industrialization and urbanization have obviously moved many Americans away from their agrarian roots, increasing the disconnect between the food on our plates and the beings that produced it.

I've been an ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years (meaning I still eat eggs and dairy products), so I'm admittedly biased.  But in my mind, there is a significant moral difference between the confinement feeding operations (more commonly known as "factory farms") which have become the norm, and the small farm like that run by my Great-Uncle Jack in northeast Nebraska.  On Jack's farm, the hogs will end up as bacon some day, but in the meantime, piglets run around a noisy barnyard and basically get to act like pigs.  The chickens also run around, eating bugs, scratching the dirt, basically acting like chickens. 

This is, of course, how all farming operations were run a few short decades ago, until industrialization revolutionized the American agricultural sector and diverse small farms were replaced by monocultural fields dedicated to corn, soybeans, or wheat, and barnyards were replaced by outbuildings housing thousands if not millions of animals.  The word "million" is not an exaggeration.  Hoosier Pride Farms recently applied for a permit to build a six-barn complex in Jay County, Indiana which would house 2,013,094 egg-laying hens.  

More after the jump.

Despite its name, Hoosier Pride Farms is an Ohio company.  Why is it planning to build just across the state border in Indiana?  Perhaps because of a recent compromise reached between Ohio farmers, the State, and the Humane Society of the United States which will impose limits on new confined animal operations in Ohio.  As reported in the New York Times on Wednesday:  "After secret negotiations, the sides agreed to bar new construction of egg farms that pack birds in cages, and to phase out the tight caging of pregnant sows within 15 years and of veal calves by 2017."  The story can be found here.

This development in Ohio comes on the heels of the approval of Prop 2 in California's 2008 election.  Prop 2 provides that "Beginning in 2015, state law would prohibit, with certain exceptions, the confinement on a farm of pregnant pigs, calves raised for veal, and egg-laying hens in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs."  More recently, California voters approved a measure which will ban the sale in California of eggs raised in a manner that would be prohibited in California. 

Ohio is the second-largest producer of eggs in America, following only Iowa.  California is not one of the largest producers of eggs, but is certainly one of the largest consumer bases.  Given the industrial nature of the agricultural sector, identifying the origins of eggs which make their way into McMuffins sold in California may be difficult.  The combination of these developments in Ohio and California, therefore, may have a strong impact on the norms in other states, even if no legal changes take place there.  Of course, it will be an interesting discussion whether it makes sense for policy to be made on a piecemeal basis, one state at a time, rather than addressing it on the national level.  These issues are simultaneously intensely local and of concern to every American.  If this ain't interstate commerce, I don't know what is.  Historically, a number of strategies have been embrace by groups attempting to limit these operations, particularly zoning law and environmental regulations.  For example, this article describes Maryland's efforts to deal with 650 million pounds of chicken manure produced in that state on an annual basis.

As these developments in Ohio and California demonstrate, concern about confined feeding operations is no longer limited to PETA, but is being more widely embraced by mainstream animal welfare organizations, consumers, and law-makers.  It'll be very interesting to see what happens next.

Tanya Marsh

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Hi Tanya - Thanks for covering this issue. One area where we're seeing a large-scale movement away from battery cages is in purchasing choices, not only by consumers, but also by major grocers, restaurant chains, food service companies, and universities. Demand for cage-free eggs is growing, and hopefully this marketplace trend will also encourage producers in the right direction.

Humane Society of the U.S.

Posted by: Hillary, HSUS | Aug 17, 2010 9:58:16 AM

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