Nebraska's Attorney General this month announced Nebraska was joining in a lawsuit challenging California law that requires eggs sold in that state be produced under strict "humane" standards.
In a prepared statement, Governor Dave Heineman said, "There is concern that the California egg production standards create a precedent that would negatively impact Nebraska agriculture. This is about protecting Nebraska's farmers and ranchers from the potential for regulatory burdens that hamper interstate trade. It's not only about protecting our egg producers. This is also about the precedent this sets for our beef, swine and dairy producers."
The lawsuit was filed by Missouri's Attorney General last month. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster explained the rationale for the suit at a December meeting of the Missouri Farm Bureau. California's standards, passed by the state's voters as a ballot initiative in 2008, created a new state law prohibiting any confinement of farm animals so they can't turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. Set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, it was believed to be the first time voters were asked directly whether to ban the practice of confining laying hens in small, so-called "battery" cages. Both the Nebraska Governer and Attorney General Jon Bruning argued in joining the suit the California law is yet another attempt by the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States to hurt agriculture, Nebraska's top industry.
"Nebraska farmers and ranchers have taken great pride in caring for their livestock for generations," said Bruning. "We stand with Nebraska ag producers and will fight HSUS' unconstitutional attempt to dictate farming practices in our state."
Five other states have joined the lawsuit against California. Missouri Pork Association head Don Nikodim has called the California law a clear violation of the U.S. Commerce Clause. The U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause gives only Congress the power to regulate trade between states. Missouri's Koster and other opponents argue that although California's law doesn't discriminate against any single state in its application, the state has failed to show the effects it imposes on commerce outside the state are minor in comparison to the local concern it seeks to address.
“I don't believe voters in California should be able to set agricultural policy in Missouri," Koster told the Missouri Farm Bureau assembly Dec. 9. "...California's new law goes further than just protecting chickens. It's also intended to advantage California farmers,” he said. “The new law says that anyone who sells eggs in California must house their own hens in accordance with California's animal protection standards, even if those animals are raised here in Missouri.
“If Missouri egg producers want to continue selling their eggs in California, they will have to retool their operations here in Missouri, and that will raise the cost of eggs in our state and across the nation,” he said.
California's 2008 ballot initiative is seen as the impetus behind national legislation proposed this year to eventually apply similar restrictions to egg production across the nation. You can read details of what that failed legislation would have meant to you here.
Researchers at Oklahoma State looked at the history of state ballot initiatives restricting the confinement of farm animals and chickens, matched the demographics of the voters who supported those initiatives in California, and then conducted a "thought experiment" predicting the likelihood of success of similar agendas in other states. Here are the top half dozen most likely states to see action.
Negligible hog production and nearly no egg-laying hens means few farmers to mount an organized opposition. Predicted percentage of voters who would vote for an initiative like California's Prop. 2: 64 percent.
Like its neighbor to the south, Massachusetts' demographics favoring higher income, higher education, age, religion and political affiliations similar to California's increases its chance of accepting regulation on animal production. "An initiative to ban gestation crates in Massachusetts is predicted to pass with high likelihood," the Oklahoma State researchers write. And even though Massachusetts produces more eggs than Rhode Island, unlike that state, it allows direct ballot initiatives, with low obstacles to getting one on the ballot: The signatures needed must only exceed 3 percent of the number of votes last cast for governor.
Just because a state doesn't have a ballot initiative process, as in New Jersey, doesn't make it immune from regulation, the Oklahoma study warns. The Garden State has already flirted with animal-farming restrictions similar to California's: Legislation to ban gestation crates was passed by both the New Jersey House and Senate. Although eventually vetoed by Governor Chris Christie in June 2013, the veto barely survived a highly contentious override attempt by the state senate. Expected percentage who would support a California-type initiative: 69 percent.
Annual hog sales of an estimated $28 million and egg production of 1.2 billion annually notwithstanding, New York follows the political demographics of its New England neighbors closely enough to make the likelihood of support for an initiative rise to 70 percent of voters.
With fully seven in 10 of its voters predicted to support a California-type initiative, the results for southern and relatively more conservative Louisiana momentarily confounded the Oklahoma researchers. What explains the southern and rural state's affinity for a political initiative so favored by its Northeastern counterparts? Religion. Louisiana's heavily Roman Catholic identity tilts it toward supporting restricting farm practices in the researchers' demographic modeling.
Maryland's demographics lead the state to the top of the list of most likely to support a ballot initiative, with 72 percent of voters predicted to back one. Although the state may not be a leader in either hog or laying-hen production, "do not doubt a nonagricultural state’s ability to influence livestock policy," the researchers caution. They predict groups like the Humane Society of the United States will continue to target states with small hog and hen populations, hoping to score victories that can be used to fan negative publicity across the country that could eventually be turned into both "voluntary" restrictions by large pork and egg buyers and national legislation.
Researchers at Oklahoma State looked at the history of state ballot initiatives restricting the confinement of farm animals and chickens, matched the demographics of the voters who supported those initiatives in California, and then conducted a "thought experiment" predicting the likelihood of the failure of similar agendas in other states. Here are the top half dozen states considered least likely to support such political action.
With almost $1 billion in hog sales and 2.8 billion eggs produced annually, Nebraska--despite a political process that offers access to the ballot initiative--appears fairly safe from imposed restrictions on pig and poultry farms. However, the Oklahoma researchers warned, Nebraska could become an important keystone in what could be called "the Ohio strategy:" Win an initiative in a large farm state restricting gestation crates or caging hens and then rally the affected farmers in that state to lobby their peers on a nationwide level to support similar restrictions in order to "level the playing field." Projected voter support rate in Nebraska for a California-style initiative: 28 percent.
West Virginia's combination of income levels, education, age, political affiliation and other demographics leaves it resistant to initiatives driven by animal-rights groups. The percent of voters likely to support such actions: Only 28 percent.
A half billion dollars in annual hog sales and roughly three-quarter billion eggs produced per year, coupled with demographics that tend to make California-style initiatives unpopular, leaves Oklahoma relatively safe despite its offering access to the ballot-initiative process. Only an estimated 23 percent of voters would support such a measure.
Ranking as the nation's biggest hog grower, no access to the ballot initiative process, and a low predicted support rate of only 21 percent all leave Iowa the most powerful hog state immune to gestation-crate bans, the Oklahoma study predicts.
States with the lowest predicted support rates for animal-rights ballot initiatives are dominated by Mainline Protestantism, the study noted--the demographic that highly predicts opposition to California-style activity. Such Protestant identity makes areas of New England, which are highly sympathetic to such politics, "a very different place than the Protestant Dakotas," they write. Predicted support rate in heavily Protestant and livestock-engaged South Dakota: Only 17 percent.
Like its neighbor to the south, heavily Protestant and politically conservative North Dakota tops the list of projected disinterest in political initiatives like California's, with but a 14 percent predicted support rate. With a large dependence on livestock, the largest number of farms per rural capita of any state, and among the highest white ethnicity rates—all of which impact affinity for such politics—"Prop two stands little chance of passing" there, the study concludes.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced in mid-December it planned to issue a final set of guidelines that would eventually end the ability of farmers to use most animal drugs marketed in this country for improving how fast and how efficiently animals grow.
Because as many as nine out of 10 U.S. hog farmers use antibiotics at some point, according to USDA survey data—and 43 percent of those farmers say they use antibiotics specifically for the purpose of helping animals grow better--a soon-to-be-published study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics predicts ending such use of antibiotics has the potential to make a financial impact on hog farmers and the pork market.
USDA economists Nigel Key and William McBride use data from the 2009 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey of feeder-to-finish hog producers—those farmers who buy pigs shortly after weaning at about 3 weeks old and then raise them to final weight—to estimate the potential effects on overall hog output and the variation in output that could result from banning antibiotics to promote growth.
Their results estimate that such use of antibiotics—often referred to as “sub-therapeutic use”—has a small positive effect on productivity and production risk, increasing output by 1 percent to 1.3 percent, while reducing the variation in output by 1.4 percent. Farmers could expect to immediately lose those productivity improvements should sub-therapeutic antibiotics be banned.
Although that percent change in productivity may seem minor, given the amount of controversy the practice endgnders in the media and the public, local grocers may be able to relate to the potential impact it would have on individuals because farmers, like grocers, operate on narrow margins. The researchers note that the average feeder-to-finish hog farmer had an average net return of only about 11 percent of sales in 2009--the year from which their data came. That means, assuming no change in prices for his hogs, an independent farmer forced to stop using sub-therapeutic antibiotics could be expected to see his income drop by about 10 percent, depending on how much he was paying for the antibiotics that were no longer being used. Even non-independent hog farmers—those who grow hogs owned by large corporations under contract, typically for a set payment per head of hog delivered—would also likely face losses. Because many are paid a bonus or on an incentive basis for delivering hogs at a standard weight and variability, the loss of ability to use those antibiotics would likely reduce the amount of pork they get paid for at their end of their contracts.
Because it would likely reduce pork supplies, at least temporarily, a national ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotics would likely result in higher hog prices, which would have the potential to impact the grocer. Ironically, the group most likely to suffer most from a ban on growth-promoting antibiotics would be the small share of farmers who currently earn a premium from marketing their hogs as “antibiotic-free.” Among the 16.3 percent of feeder-to-finish operations who said they used no antibiotics of any kind, about 15 percent reported receiving a price premium for not using antibiotics. Those growers would likely see the premium for their marketing trait evaporate overnight with the ban on the practice.
The USDA researchers caution that some limitations of their study design make it likely they have not captured the full potential impact of an antibiotics ban. For instance, they did not account for any downstream costs that might affect the processors by the expected decrease in the uniformity of hog size, which is known to slow down production lines. In addition, they did not estimate any impact on operations that handle newborn and newly weaned pigs. If the experience among European hog farmers when that continent banned the practice is any indication, the impact would be much larger for those operations. The resulting impact on pork supplies and the cost to the grocer would also likely be larger.
Nebraska senators Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer sent a public letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy this month requesting EPA ensure its "listening sessions" regarding the administration's proposed carbon regulations include citizens, businesses and farms. The Nebraska senators say the regulations would harm all those groups.
"We all want a cleaner environment," Johnanns said in his release statement regarding the letter, "but this Administration is blind to the economic consequences their anti-coal agenda is having on rural America."
"These regulations will drive up costs for every Nebraska farmer and rancher, business owner and manufacturer, and family each time they turn on the lights. I've told EPA about the economic hardships they are causing. It's time they hear it straight from Nebraskans," he said.
Meanwhile, the two Nebraska senators also joined a bipartisan group of 16 senators last week to meet with administrator McCarthy to urge changes to the proposed Renewable Fuel Standard 2014 rule. The delegation argues EPA's proposed rule would hurt the biofuels industry by lowering the biodiesel target below current industry production levels and reduce the total biofuels target by over a billion gallons, discouraging investment and hurting jobs and rural communities across the country. The EPA's proposed rule would set the biodiesel target at 1.28 billion gallons, which is below current industry production levels of around 1.7 billion gallons. It would also reduce the total biofuels target to 15.2 billion gallons--1.34 billion gallons below the 2013 target of 16.55 billion gallons, and almost 3 billion gallons below the 2014 statutory target of 18.15 billion gallons.