Happy Election Day, Food Junta readers! Since we all know who FJ is supporting this presidential election, I thought I’d take this opportunity to write about another important vote today: California’s Proposition 2.
Prop 2 is the Standards for Confining Farm Animals initiative, which will prohibit the confinement of certain farm animals (veal, pregnant pigs, and egg-laying chickens) in a way that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, or fully extend their limbs. Basically, because of the overwhelming egg industry in California (as compared to, say, the veal industry), Proposition 2’s most visible impact is that all eggs produced in California will be cage-free, as of 2015 when the statute goes into effect. Farmers have until then to get their operations up to speed. The Humane Society has been the major proponent of Proposition 2 (along with Sierra Club California, the California Democratic Party, and United Farm Workers), arguing that Prop 2 will reduce cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, as well as increase animal and food safety.
Now, let me begin by saying that I voted yes on Prop 2. But it was not an automatic decision, nor a particularly easy one. I’m not going to use this post as a platform for thinking one way or the other (I will provide some links to that effect instead), but rather as a chance to explain how Prop 2 – and its attendant moral, social, and economic ramifications – sum up everything that is good, bad, and incredibly confusing about the politicization of food.
When I first heard about Proposition 2, I was for it, of course. Who with a heart could be against a vote that allows a little baby calf to be cageless? Plus, the New York Times editorial board endorsed it, based on the very real concerns about the wellbeing and safety of animals who are so horribly confined. “To a California voter still undecided on Proposition 2,” the editorial read, “we say simply, imagine being confined in the voting booth for life. Would you vote for the right to be able to sit down and turn around and raise your arms?” Fair point.
But then I read the editorials in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, both of which are against Proposition 2. Hmm. The fact that the local papers, as opposed to the big liberal national paper, were against Prop 2 gave me pause. And they brought up some valid points. For one, arguments about the disadvantages of doing this through a proposition, which are some very California-specific details I won’t get into here. More compelling was the economic argument. Cage-free eggs are more expensive than regular eggs. That means more expenses for both producer and consumer, detractors say. That means people buying their eggs shipped in from out-of-state or Mexico, which means California egg producers going out of business, detractors say. Well, I don’t want to drive any small farmers out of business, either! Or take eggs – a perfect protein – away from families in need. The eggs will also, detractors say, be less safe. Hmm. It seemed to me that maybe, in their hurry to have California set an example on an important issue, national press (ahem, NY Times) had maybe overlooked some of the details that would actually affect the people of California. That perhaps California was being held up as a sacrificial lamb, if you will.
But then, back to the ol’ NYT, I read a profile of Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society. As I understood it (and again, this is complicated, and I was feeling more and more over my head as I read more and more), Prop 2 is just the first step in the Humane Society’s plan to make the country a better place for farm animals – and for the people who eat them and the things they produce. The goal is not to wage a legal battle in every state, but to set an example in California – the largest agriculture state in the nation – that will force other states and big agriculture companies to follow suit, for fear of ultimately being engaged in the same legal battle. The article – along with this post from the YSFP – also assuaged my economic and safety fears.
The point is: food politics is really complicated. And it doesn’t help that it’s still a relatively partisan issue (Big Agriculture on one side, Michael Pollan and the Humane Society on the other). It doesn’t help that there’s no definitive news source I can read, and that even the NYT editorial ignores all detracting arguments instead of acknowledging and addressing the niggling details.
Ultimately, Proposition 2 is a flawed bill, but a good and important step in furthering discussion of animal rights and food safety. And after all my reading and thinking, I really believe that at this point in food politics and food discussion, a vote against Prop 2 sends a riskier message than a vote for it. I voted for Prop 2 because I wanted to declare that I care about where my food comes from.
Proposition 2 is almost definitely going to pass, and when it does, I will be interested to see how it plays out. The important thing to remember is that Prop 2 is not the end in and of itself; it is a means to more discussion, and to more law-making, and to more caring and attention in general about what exactly it is that we are eating day to day. Which is not to say that it is a black and white issue. It is, however, an issue that has to keep moving forward, and a vote yes on Prop 2 — as complicated as it may be — does just that.
In conclusion, I will leave you with these parting words from rocker/conservative/conservationist Ted Nugent, via his Kill It & Grill It cookbook: “Free-range chicken ain’t free and that ain’t no range. Venison is free-range. Pheasant is free-range. The almighty Ruffed Grouse is free-range. I’m free-range. Chickens are incarcerated…If it can’t get away, it ain’t free-range and I ain’t interested.”
If only all food politics could be that simple.