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On cages and confinement: A deep dive into ballot question 3

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 November Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

Chickens: Eggs from these hens would be outlawed should Question 3 pass

But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom
- From "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou

If Maya Angelou were alive today, she’d be near deaf from the singing and clucking of all the caged hens across this country. She’d also be hearing the shrill oinking of the crated sows and the mooing calves and all the other animals that are being raised in some form of confinement. And, if she happened to be a Massachusetts resident, she’d be faced with an opportunity to decide on the ethics of allowing such agricultural practices to be sold as food in the Commonwealth.

Although overshadowed by the non-stop presidential coverage, ballot question 3 is perhaps one of the most important decisions we’ll make come November 8. In short, this question asks us to choose whether we as a state ought to allow the confinement of laying hens, sows, and veal. But really, the question presents to us a more fundamental conundrum: How much choice and personal freedom is acceptable for a society, especially if those choices have potentially negative consequences for others?

Proponents of ballot question 3 believe that personal choices ought to be limited. In this case, it is to ensure that certain farm animals receive at least enough space to turn around, lie down, and spread their wings. They are essentially calling for a bare minimum of livestock welfare standards. The primary drivers of this campaign, which includes groups like the Humane Society and the ASPCA, have already tried multiple times to drive this type of legislation through the State House, and each time they have failed. But it appears that they have found their path forward through direct democracy; the latest polls show the yes side leading by a wide margin.

In fact, it’s only just recently that any organized opposition has materialized in this debate. The oppositional group, known as Citizens Against Food Tax Injustice, argue that this ballot question unfairly imposes an increase in food costs for Massachusetts residents. Instead, they argue that people ought to be allowed to select for themselves if they want cage-free eggs, organic veal, or cheap meat and eggs that were raised with some confinement. Why should someone else limit my freedom to choose, they wonder, just to appease the agenda of radical animal rights activists, many of whom do not even live in Massachusetts?

Indeed, the opponents to question 3 do have a point; it is almost certain that certain food prices would increase should this question pass. Even the Humane Society acknowledges that going cage-free would raise the price of a dozen eggs. Unfortunately, the two sides offer wildly different interpretations of just how much of an increase that would be. The most conservative estimate put forward is an increase of 1 or 2 cents per egg, while others believe that the price of eggs might even double.

Given the range of estimates, it may be instructive to look at the difference in price between caged and cage-free eggs as they stand right now. Based on my most recent excursion to Stop & Shop, the gap in egg prices was approximately $1 per dozen, or, a 40% increase in price. (Unfortunately, such data was impossible to come by for non-confined veal or pork since neither of those currently require any labeling. But a study out of Iowa State University recently concluded that group housing for pregnant and lactating pigs was actually cheaper and resulted in less piglet fatalities than using crates. Coming from a University in the largest pork producing state ought to mean something.)

This bump in food prices ought to be looked at seriously, for foods like eggs and meat are staples and essential protein sources for many. In fact, this is the crux of the oppositional argument: that this law would unfairly punish the poor in exchange for giving the more affluent a warm and fuzzy feeling that they’ve done something good for helpless farm critters.

But while there is a social justice component to this debate, we must also acknowledge that almost all industries have some regulations imposed upon them. Take minimum wage for instance. Sure, if we get rid of laws that impose a minimum wage, the price of many products would likely go down. But we, as a society, have decided that a floor was necessary even though it increased the price of living for some.

A more compelling argument is that some of the changes outlined in this ballot question would not necessarily positively impact animal welfare. Right now, the popular alternative to battery cages is a housing system known as an aviary, in which hens are packed, often by the tens of thousands, into multi-tiered buildings. They do not have access to the outdoors or sunlight in these systems. They’re also subject to cannibalism and violence from other birds. In fact, a three-year study found that “aviaries had nearly twice the death rate of caged systems.” A system that actually does promote such carnage can hardly be called humane.

Hens: Aviaries used for “cage-free” hens would still be allowed under Question 3Unfortunately, most people don’t know that fact about cage-free aviaries. And this gets to the heart of the matter. We are asking people to decide on a policy that they likely know very little or nothing about. Given that most people are a few generations removed from any farming lifestyle, they probably assume that a cage-free bird leads a perfectly bucolic lifestyle. Even The Boston Globe said in their Yes on 3 editorial that “humane treatment mean[s] letting pigs be pigs, and chickens be chickens, without imposing obvious and unnecessary suffering from confinement,” which leads me to conclude that they believe this ballot question would actually allow industrial livestock to lead natural, happy lives.

This ultimately exposes the perils of direct democracy: we are asking people with only superficial knowledge about a subject to make important decisions that require a deep and nuanced understanding. Unfortunately, the alternative is not always much better: namely, to allow politicians to make (or, more realistically, not make) decisions on our behalf.

So while the caged bird (or sow or calf) will no longer be caged should this question pass, it is most certain that she will continue to sing “with a fearful trill/ for things unknown but longed for still.”



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