Guest Columnist

Iowa lawmakers must accept agricultural change

A washed egg is plucked from a conveyor during candling inspection at an Illinois fresh egg operation. Lighting from below illuminates the eggs, allowing inspectors to detect flaws.  (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
A washed egg is plucked from a conveyor during candling inspection at an Illinois fresh egg operation. Lighting from below illuminates the eggs, allowing inspectors to detect flaws. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The Iowa Legislature is out of sync with mainstream values. It showed as much when it recently approved legislation to prop up an irresponsible and failing factory farming system.

The measure in question would prevent companies like Wal-Mart from phasing out the sale of eggs from hens who are confined in battery cages, where birds are packed so tightly that they can’t even spread their wings. Rather than allowing businesses to operate and make decisions based on market conditions, the Iowa measure requires supermarkets to sell eggs from cruel factory farms.

Iowa is also notorious for its passage of a shameful “ag-gag” law to prevent undercover investigations and keep consumers in the dark about the unsettling abuses of industrialized animal agriculture. That law is now being challenged in court as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

The factory-farming industry’s need to conceal its intolerable practices speaks volumes. It is acting outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in a society that values compassion, responsibility, and transparency.

Our nation is in the midst of a food movement, propelled by soaring health care costs and growing concerns about environmental destruction and egregious animal cruelty that is commonplace on industrialized animal farms. Consumers don’t want to contribute to unnecessary animal suffering, they don’t want to eat food that makes them sick, and they don’t want to support a food system that contributes significantly to our planet’s most threatening ecological problems, including climate change. Citizens are changing how they eat, and supporting legislative policies that prevent some of the worst forms of animal cruelty.

Beginning in 2002, states across the U.S. have been enacting laws to prohibit extreme factory-farm confinement systems, including gestation crates for pigs, veal crates for calves, and battery cages for egg-laying hens, by requiring that animals have at least enough space to stand up, turn around, lie down, and stretch their limbs. While modest, these measures recognize that farm animals, like all animals, are sentient beings capable of suffering, and deserve to be treated with compassion. As Mahatma Gandhi cogently observed, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.”

Consumers oppose animal cruelty, and businesses are pledging to avoid products from some of the most egregiously inhumane systems, such as battery cages in which egg-laying hens are each given less space than the size of a sheet of paper. Packed into barren wire cages that are lined up in rows and stacked in tiers in huge warehouses, the birds’ bodies scrape against their harsh enclosures, causing their feathers to wear off. They are de-beaked to prevent injuries that result when stressed birds peck each other and are unable to escape. These poor animals are never able to go outside, stretch their wings, or engage in basic natural behaviors, and they suffer from both physical and psychological disorders as a result.

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Iowa is the nation’s largest egg-producing state, and it’s notorious for using battery cages, which have been staunchly defended by Iowa’s politically powerful egg industry. Agribusiness has invested millions in maintaining the status quo, but it is unwise to defend cruel and antiquated systems. Change is inevitable, especially in the face of evolving social norms and new technologies, and there are many burgeoning agricultural opportunities in Iowa and beyond. Besides “cage-free” eggs, the market for plant-based foods is exploding, along with the growth of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and community gardens. Agro-tourism, including farm stays and “pick-your-own” operations, also present new, transformative, and expanding opportunities.

Iowa is blessed with vast expanses of farmland (which in the U.S. is becoming increasingly scarce), and the state can play a valuable role in transforming our nation’s food system to better align with the values and interests of our citizens, while also improving people’s lives in both rural and urban settings.

Instead of passing laws to protect battery cages and prevent citizens from knowing where their food comes from, Iowa lawmakers and businesses should do the opposite: They should phase out battery cages and encourage more transparency and consumer engagement in the food system, which will lead to agricultural innovations and best serve the long-term interests of society at large.

• Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal protection organization.

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