Vote Yes on Prop 2
(Note: This is a personal rant of Zan Romanoff’s and does not reflect the views of the Yale Sustainable Food Project)
California’s political leanings tend to mirror its geographical positioning: farthest west, farthest left. A measure on the state’s ballots this November hopes to take advantage of that notoriously open-minded demographic, asking voters to approve a bill that while variously limited and flawed, would stand as a landmark in the battle for animal rights.
Proposition 2, if passed, would hardly usher in a new age of animal husbandry, forcing Californians back into the days of the hunter-gatherer—it merely requires that by 2015, all egg-laying hens be housed in cages that allow them to sit, stand, walk, and stretch their wings. It is, by the standards of most animal-rights activists, so minimal a concession as to be negligible—it doesn’t, for instance, mean that those animals will ever see the light of day or put their feet on solid earth. It does, however, operate on the assumption that these animals have legal rights—an assertion that, as of now, has yet to be made law.
The bill’s detractors, however, cast the current situation as ultimately beneficial: chickens are too stupid to protect themselves from predators and keep themselves healthy and so ought to be caged, contained and crammed full of antibiotics. The website safecaliforniafood.org raises concerns about salmonella and avian flu in free-range flocks, advocating the carefully controlled and well-medicated environment currently provided to most of the birds raised in California. They also argue that the increased costs associated with the measure will simply drive egg-producers a couple hundred miles south to Mexico’s more lax laws, forcing the state to import eggs and further weakening its already struggling economy. Proposition 2, according to the site, “eliminates fresh, safe, and local eggs.”
This last claim is patently untrue, unless you believe that large-scale producers are the only source of eggs in the state; Proposition 2 would in fact serve as a boon to family farms, forcing big ag to pay upfront for some of the externalities it has kept hidden in the complexities of our ‘modern’ economy.
The attendant health concerns are more and less valid; studies have been done on both sides of the salmonella question, and it is certainly true that factory farms have developed a system for dealing with animal waste that has essentially eliminated outbreaks traceable to California farms. That virus, however, and the avian flu the website also name-drops, are not the beginning and end of health questions associated with the consumption of the eggs these chickens produce. Much has been said about the rate at which humans have recently become immune to antibiotics, a fact probably related to the amounts being fed to us through factory farmed animals. Further, the excrement produced by such operations is treated simply as waste and disposed of, contaminating groundwater and blighting larger waterways with excess nitrogen poisonous to aquatic life.
The litany of sins associated with the factory farm is a familiar incantation: there is no question that in this case, what is modern is backwards, intervening as it does in a natural system it does not understand and solving problems by creating new ones. There is a final consideration, however, aside from the back and forth about the best way to manage bacterial infection and public health concerns: the fact that these are animals being raised, lives created and then taken. To imagine that we ought to treat them as a means to an end, protein vectors to be protected from bacteria just long enough that they can be killed, dressed, cooked and then crammed down our greedy gullets, is unethical and inhumane. The basic proposition that the eventual fact of slaughter somehow justifies a full lifetime’s worth of cruelty is insane. This law is important not so much in the actual changes it makes but instead in the stand it takes, mandating some minimal standard of living, demanding rights for the animals we consume—as we’ve long had them for those with whom we live. The solution is not perfect but the intent is good; here’s hoping that this proposition is indicative of a serious shift both in public policy but also, and perhaps more importantly, in public consciousness.