On Tuesday, voters here in Ohio will decide several ballot initiatives, including Issue 2, which will, by constitutional amendment, establish a state board to oversee livestock production. At first, what I heard sounded good, a lot of talk about family farms, local food, and humane husbandry. One group promoting the initiative calls itself “Ohioans for Livestock Care”, which evokes images of herdsmen tending their flocks. The group’s website is www.safelocalohiofood.com.
But then I started noticing things, like the fact that the big stinky dairy farm I pass on the way to work sports a “Yes on 2” sign out front. This is a farm that confines cattle to feedlots. That is, the cows eat from their troughs while standing in their own shit. And I noticed that huge amounts of money were pouring into the campaign for 2: mailings several times a week, billboards, radio commercials, ubiquitous mass-produced signs.
If there is an organized opposition to Issue 2 I haven’t seen it, only a few letters to the editor and a hand-lettered sign in front of a small organic farm south of town.
Then I saw a list of sponsors of the bill, which includes every agribusiness organization in the state: the pork producers, the egg factories, the beef and dairy “industries.” Plus the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican and Democratic parties. And weirdly, the Catholic bishops of Ohio. Agriculture in Ohio is big business, and apparently no one wants to cross it.
One flier was particularly telling. It said that the proposed board would protect Ohio farmers from outside animal rights groups that want to impose strict controls and even eventually outlaw livestock production in the state. Of course only a tiny percentage of Ohioans are vegans, and the odds of this are about as likely as a group of Manichees outlawing sex. And what is the source of this scary prospect? Well, it seems the Humane Society is trying to get a referendum on the ballot for the next election which would insure that confined animals would have room to stand up and turn around in their cages. That’s it; a pretty modest proposal, but such a threat to Big Farm Inc that they are striving to get a constitutional amendment passed to protect themselves from it. And exactly how does allowing animals to turn around in their cages make Ohio livestock any less safe or local? It doesn’t, obviously,but no matter. Hirsute PETA types serve here as the Scary Outsider, a staple in modern American politics, and the Industry has latched onto buzzwords that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. How can anyone be against safe local food?
Now, I am no vegetarian. Indeed, as a member of a Church whose central rite is rooted in Jewish Temple worship, in which the priest and people consume a Lamb after sacrificing Him, I think any moral objection to meat-eating highly problematic. Monks and ascetics, and the faithful during fasting times, may abstain from meat as an act of penance, but that is entirely different. It is giving up a good thing, like the celibate foregoing the joys of the marital embrace for the sake of something greater.
That said, there is something deeply wrong with industrial livestock production. In domesticating animals there is forged a sort of primal covenant. Yes, the advantages for humankind are evident: the stronger muscles of the ox or draft horse, the concentrated (and tasty) protein of eggs, milk, and meat.
But there is something in it for the animal as well: protection from predators, foods like cultivated grain which are not found in the wild, a secure source of sustenance in the winter, warmer and sturdier shelters than it can construct on its own. When man respects the nature of the domesticate animal, its life is more secure -and arguably happier- than that of its wild cousin.
But when beasts are subjected to standing in their own excrement, or living in the crowded hovel of the egg factory, where chickens never see the sun or feel the earth beneath their feet, or breathe anything but the toxic ammonia-ridden air of their own waste, where instead of tender grain and succulent clover God’s creatures are fed offal and garbage, the farmer has drastically broken the covenant. These animals are living a life infinitely worse than they would in the wild.
Clearly Issue 2, with its supporting roster of agribusiness organizations, is designed to protect factory farms. Cloaking its true intent with slogans about safe and local food, on animal care, is cynical and Orwellian.
So Tuesday will be Opposite Day in Ohio, and it is not unlikely that most Ohioans will be duped, lulled by the nice words, and Issue 2 will pass, blown in on a wind of lies.