Direct Democracy Supports Farmed Animal Welfare
The U.S. has one of the largest and most highly intensified animal agriculture sectors in the world — yet there are no federal laws that protect farmed animals. In fact, farmed animals are explicitly excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Attempts to create federal laws that promote farmed animal welfare have repeatedly failed. For example, in 1989, a bill to protect calves from crate confinement failed to get a majority in Congress. In 2011, a proposal that set a minimum cage size for egg-laying hens was ultimately blocked by cow and pig meat interest groups, despite having the support of the United States Egg Producers Association and the Humane Society for the United States. In the absence of U.S. federal protections for farmed animals, some private companies and state governments have introduced their own welfare policies.
In 2002, Florida passed a law to ban the confinement of pregnant sows in crates (called “gestation crates”) because of a citizen-led ballot under a Republican governor. Since then, 11 other states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington) have passed farmed animal welfare laws — a majority related to banning confinement systems for pigs, calves, and egg-laying hens. California, Massachusetts, and Washington have also banned imports from states that don’t follow their respective laws.
This study looks at what helped these policies to be put in place — for example, by looking at the role of political parties in the 12 states, as well as the influence of private companies and how animal advocates and other political groups used public ballots that directly led to policy change. Ultimately, the author aims to understand the underlying political factors that promote or block farmed animal welfare reforms in the United States.
The author begins by discussing the link between politicizing farmed animal welfare and policy change. Politicization is characterized by “public salience” (the public’s awareness of a given issue), “polarization” (political parties with opposing views) and “actor expansion” (e.g., animal advocates and other pro-interest animal groups becoming more involved in policymaking). Politicization goes hand-in-hand with policy change, as those who want to enact new legislation will often try to politicize an issue (while those who oppose the legislation will try to depoliticize it).
Unlike in Europe, where animal welfare policies are an important issue for many political parties, neither Democrats nor Republicans in the U.S. have a strong position about farmed animal welfare at the national level. However, some state-level Democrats are supportive of stronger animal welfare policies or farming regulations to address wider issues of sustainability and water quality. The author found that Democrats are more likely to support welfare policies — in 11 out of 15 instances where state welfare reforms were passed, the governor was a Democrat. Republican political platforms are strongly against agricultural regulation, often citing “over-regulation” and “higher economic costs of welfare” as their reasons.
The author also found that some retailers and restaurant chains have started to set their own farmed animal welfare standards, often in response to public awareness and changing consumer demand. For example, Burger King, WalMart, and McDonalds have minimum standards that suppliers must follow, which may result in welfare improvements despite a lack of policy in this area. The United Egg Producers predicts that by 2026 almost 75% of hens will be kept in “cage-free” conditions (compared to 11% in 2020 and 4% in 2010) to meet changing demands of retailers and restaurants. However, it remains unclear whether these company-led reforms influence state-level policy changes down the line.
In a majority of the 12 states with animal welfare legislation, policy changes were enacted because of public ballot initiatives or the threat of public ballots. Arizona (2006), California (2008 and 2018), Florida (2002), and Massachusetts (2018) all held ballots to enact farmed animal welfare reforms. In Ohio (2007), Maine (2009), and Michigan (2009), the threat of ballots opened the window for political discussions that eventually led to policy change. Public ballots are especially effective in states with Republican governors.
Where the opportunity exists, the author argues that public ballots are powerful democratic tools that give everyone, including animal advocates, a chance to get involved in policymaking. For example, the Humane Society of the United States has initiated or supported most of the ballots passed across the 12 U.S. states, including mobilizing public support for them. However, these ballots have been almost always opposed by the food and farming industry, including big food producers and lobby groups. But in some rare cases, like the 2018 ballot initiative in California, organizations like the Humane Farming Association and PETA also opposed the welfare initiative, arguing that it wouldn’t go far enough to reduce animal suffering.
When it comes to advocating for farmed animals, it helps to look at history as a way of finding what works. As this study suggests, animal advocates can play a major role in the political sphere, especially as the two major U.S. political parties haven’t taken a strong leadership position on farmed animal welfare. Because polarization can delay policy changes, the author recommends that stakeholders work together and try to reduce conflict as much as possible in order to pass pro-animal legislative reforms. For now, it appears that public ballots and other state-level initiatives are the most promising route for change.