The closer we get to California implementing prop 12, the more people seem to be ringing the alarm bells. Those warnings finally reached Washington, DC. Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley introduced legislation to limit prop 12’s application outside of California. But will it work?
Let’s break this down.
What is California’s Prop 12?
California voters overwhelming passed the Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act in 2018. Honestly, I don’t know a lot of people–farmers included–who support farm-animal cruelty. So I’m sure an affirmative vote seemed like an easy choice.
But prop 12 isn’t about cruelty to animals; it’s meant to fundamentally change animal agriculture across the United States. It applies to veal calves, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens, and mandates the minimum housing spaces that farmers must give these animals. That sounds nice, but it’s completely devoid of any reference to good animal husbandry. (Check out this article by Wanda of Minnesota Farm Living for some insight into sow housing.)
Hog produces are, arguably, hit the hardest by prop 12. That’s because only 4 percent of producers in the U.S. meet prop 12’s requirements for sow housing. Four. Percent. Meanwhile, California makes up 15 percent of the pork market.
Why does this matter to farmers outside of California?
I know what you’re thinking: why do farmers outside of California care about this law? If it’s a California law, it only applies to California farmers; right?
Wrong. That’s the craziest thing about prop 12 (and, quite frankly, other ballot proposals in California). Prop 12 applies to any farmers selling their product in the state. So it doesn’t matter where you raise hogs–California, Michigan, or Canada–you can’t sell them in the state unless you comply with the new law.
At least two lawsuits by agriculture groups have argued this aspect of prop 12 violates what’s known as the dormant commerce clause (I explained the concept here). Unfortunately, those arguments have fallen on deaf ears (though one lawsuit is still pending). The Supreme Court has declined to hear similar cases, meaning there’s likely no relief coming from the courts.
What would the EATS Act accomplish?
Ernst and Grassley’s bill tries to enforce the constitution’s commerce clause. According to Magnetic Ag, it says that one state can’t regulate agricultural activities in another state. So, in other words, California can only regulate California farmers; it can’t regulate Iowa farmers.
It’s an alluring concept, so long as your farm is located in the right state. It won’t do anything to help California farmers, of course (er, sorry…). And farms located in states that enjoy radical regulations (here’s looking at you, Washington and Oregon) will be at the mercy of their electorate. For obvious reason, that’s still pretty scary.
But the EATS Act would be a nice way of sticking it to those on the west coast. California has played these games before–passing ballot proposals that essentially create new requirements for growing food across the entire country. Farmers and producers have to comply because the California market is too big to lose. The EATS Act could put a stop to it.
I also believe it could slow down future ballot measures. In reality, these are proposed in California for two reasons: there’s a better chance they’ll pass and the California market is big enough to influence the whole country. If the second part of that equation is axed, there’s less incentive to fund the campaigns supporting these laws. Voters may also think twice about putting costly and unnecessary regulations on their own farmers, ultimately making them less competitive.
Will EATS become law?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s even a remote chance the EATS Act is ever signed into law. I don’t see much appetite for it in the Senate (its two sponsors are both Republicans), let alone the house. I imagine Senator Cory Booker would twist it into an excuse for animal abuse. And I don’t foresee many Congressman wanting to step out on a limb to support it. It may work as part of a larger farm bill, but even that would be difficult.
Perhaps in the future there would be a better political climate for the bill. If our national atmosphere is ever serious about checking California’s nationwide power, the EATS Act needs to be introduced then.
So while I support the EATS Act, I don’t see it becoming law. That means hog producers will have to make a choice: bow to California’s authority or cut out 15 percent of your potential market. I’ll continue to hope it’s the latter. Maybe then California voters will start caring a little more.