Back in January I wrote a blog entitled Proposition 2 déjà vu about a proposed California ballot initiative entitled “The Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act”. Sure enough that initiative qualified for the 2018 ballot, despite the clear data on the impacts as detailed in my three blog posts on this issue (Six hens a laying, Evidence-based animal welfare recommendations, Proposition 2 déjà vu).
I am quaintly of the opinion that objective evidence should drive public policy, and not emotions, despite having lived in California for over 30 years. And as a public scientist I remain convinced that objective facts and data are the best way to inform policy.
However, ballot initiatives in California are basically a pay-to-play scorecard. If you have the money to get the requisite number of signatures (365,880 valid signatures), then your initiative will be on the ballot, facts be damned. And so it was with Proposition 12, a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)‐backed initiative addressing animal confinement, which has raised $5.37 million to date… And so now let’s cue the opposition funding which will no doubt be “big ag” or “corporate farming” or “evil egg” or “big chicken”, or a tearful segment of a mother on Dr. Oz, or a shockumentary on NetFlix…..but no – crickets (actually cage-free, mute crickets to be precise). As in no organized-opposition from those who grow your food, or research the best way to produce food sustainably (Hint: people who might know some things).
Wait – what? Agriculture and scientists have had enough. We know science and facts are useless (see my previous 3 blogs re this initiative and almost all of the outreach work I have ever done in agricultural science), and there just is no point in fighting initiatives funded by wealthy animal activist industry groups who use persuasive arguments based entirely on emotion while conveniently failing to mention the multiple trade-offs and unintended consequences associated with their proposed course of action. And so the usual adversaries of demonstrably bad agricultural policy i.e. “big ag”, known as farmers by the general public, and “tobacco scientists”, known as public university faculty and researchers to most, have thrown in the towel.
And I understand that response. It is exhausting trying to fight these large, well-funded activist groups who will stop at nothing to get their way – facts and scientific consensus be damned, and it can be a lucrative pastime. Ask those trying to fight the anti-vaxxers, or the anti-GMO industry. Slowly I see my animal scientist colleagues quietly retreating into the “spiral of silence” – a tranquil place where no one fabricates facts, and where pure science can be carried out peacefully sans messy public confrontations – sometimes referred to as “the ivory tower.”
Last time UC Davis got involved in this discussion by providing objective facts regarding Proposition 2 “Treatment of Farm Animals” over a decade ago in 2008, it cost the taxpayers more than a million dollars in a lawsuit with HSUS – money that did not go to educating our students or carrying out research, and the lawsuit about wore out one of my faculty colleagues. Likely UC administration is happy we are playing dead this time around on Proposition 12 too.
And who can blame the University? It is not fun to be in the middle of a politicized, scientific controversy. However, if professionals in the field are unwilling to stand up for objective data and evidence-based decisions, who will? And that is where this discussion gets interesting.
Who is opposing Proposition 12 – if not industry or subject-matter experts? The Humane Farming Association (HFA), an animal cruelty organization that opposes the proposition on the grounds that it legalizes for several more years some practices HFA opposes. So Proposition 12 does not move fast enough for the Humane Farming Association.
Say again? With a modest $550,000, a committee backed entirely by the Humane Farming Association, is the sole funder of opposition to Proposition 12, the “The Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals”. And here is where it gets good. Who doesn’t like a little Humane vs Humane mud wrestling?
Bradley Miller, spokesperson for HFA’s Californian’s Against Cruelty, Cages, and Fraud “Stop the Rotten Egg Initiative” stated of rival HSUS
“The Humane Society of the United States [HSUS] is once again deceiving voters, flip-flopping on the issue of cages, and perpetuating the suffering of egg-laying hens” HFA
There is a video made by HFA (below and can be accessed here) summarizing their version of the June 19, 2018 California State Legislature hearing regarding Proposition 12 which contains some interesting conflict-of-interest footage, including some questioning as to how much money HSUS was making from Proposition 12 (Spoiler alert: HSUS does not have those numbers).
According to HFA, HSUS ended up collecting 664,000 signatures for the ballot, but less than a quarter (164,000) of those were collected by volunteers, the remaining signatures were collected by HSUS paid-“bounty-hunter” signature gatherers, like the one I met at the CA Davis market in January, telling me that Proposition 12 would remove non-existent “veal-crates”, and sow “gestation crates” from California production systems. This video is worth a listen, as Miller suggests the major opposition to Proposition 12 will be the humane farming associations.
Miller further stated on the HFA “Stop the Rotten Egg” page:
“Prop 12 is now just a publicity stunt in search of a lawsuit. Not only does this come at taxpayer expense, HSUS’s reckless exploitation of California’s ballot measure system is putting in grave danger a wide array of existing consumer, animal, and environmental protection laws. Of the initiatives appearing on the November ballot, Proposition 12 is the dirtiest of the dozen. We’re confident that California voters won’t get fooled again and that this fraudulent initiative will be decisively rejected.” HFA
“This initiative should be fiercely opposed by everyone who cares about farm animal suffering. HSUS’s collusion with the egg industry is disturbing. From legalizing battery cages to allowing as little as one square foot of space per hen — this initiative would be a disaster for millions of egg-laying hens who would still be left suffering in battery cages throughout California.” FoA
“Beware! This initiative is being painted in rosy terms, but don’t be fooled… What it would actually do is allow farms to keep egg-laying hens in cages until 2022, at which time factory farms would still be able to confine uncaged hens to massive, crowded sheds with only 1 square foot of space per bird.” PETA
“Time and again HFA has accurately identified fatal flaws in legislation advanced by HSUS.” Animals 24/7
So what is a voter to do? Be guided by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Humane Farming Association (HFA), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Friends of Animals (FoA), or Animals 24/7? Some of the above, none of the above, one of the above? Who is representing animal welfare, and how can you tell? You could try asking the scientific community who have spent their careers researching these questions, or farmers who happen to know a thing or two about farming – but that does not seem to be a popular route.
In the absence of objective, evidence-based measurements – there is just a “blob” of emotions, competing world-views, and fund-raising agendas. And that is not a great foundation upon which to base decisions around animal agriculture or public policy. Case in point: Proposition 2 from 2008 (see what that did to California farmers: Six hens a laying).
So it seems some cracks are appearing in the humpty dumpty coalition of “animal-themed corporations” also known as the “humane community”. And perhaps nowhere is this rift more bizarrely illustrated than in this “Stop the Rotten Egg” page animated video, “Proposition 12: California’s Caged Chickens Say NO!”.
For anyone that has ever met the former President and CEO of HSUS, Wayne Pecelle, who resigned February 2018 in a #MeToo moment after a number of women accused him of sexual harassment, the big-toothed male lead featured in this animated video is a thinly disguised provocation from one humane society (HFA) whose operations are based on the West Coast in California to another (HSUS) based on the East Coast in Maryland. Ironically the largest egg producing state in the US by far is Iowa.
On an unrelated note, buried in the fine print of Proposition 12, are the following strikeouts (and additions) that remove the scientific and agricultural research exemptions that were previously written into SECTION 5. SECTION 25992 OF THE CALIFORNIA HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE (line A below).
The proposed Proposition 12 language includes the following exemptions:
“This Chapter will not apply:
(a) During scientific or agricultural medical research.”
In other words, scientific and agricultural research animals at universities and other research facilities are subject to the provisions of the initiative – just like all of the farm animls. The implications of this change to the research exemption on things such as teaching, scientific or agricultural research, especially for genetic and nutrition research (we need individual cages to collect observations or phenotypes on each animal, and to record which egg comes from which hen), may well not be discovered until after the ballot votes are cast when agriculturalists and scientists go to perform specialized research on calves, pigs, or poultry.
It may be that those university researchers retreating to the “spiral of silence” to avoid the discomfort of a heated public discussion of Proposition 12, will eventually find their research projects thwarted by the inevitable passage of the initiative (I may have quaint opinions on how objective evidence should drive public policy, but I am a realist living in California). Yet another casualty of public policy based on emotion and propaganda, rather than informed by objective evidence and science-based recommendations.
As Mr. Miller, spokesperson for HFA’s Californian’s Against Cruelty, Cages, and Fraud, ironically lamented during his testimony before the California State Legislature, including the words “farm animal” and “protection” in a ballot initiative in California is enough to get it passed, irrespective of how the text reads, and what the ultimate impacts of its passage will be on the welfare of animals, and the people of California.