How do you want to spin this?
“Big Ag Blinks in Ohio, Bows to HSUS Demands.”
“Humane Society of the United States Slinks Away from Ohio in Face-Saving Move.”
Either way leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
On June 30, the day the Ohioans for Humane Farms was to submit the signatures it had gathered to put a Humane Society of the United States-backed animal care initiative on the fall ballot, the governor called a late afternoon news conference.
Flanked by Jack Fisher, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation CEO, and Wayne Pacelle, HSUS CEO, Gov. Ted Strickland announced an agreement had been reached between agricultural interests and the HSUS to halt the ballot initiative and “enhance” animal care standards. You can read the agreement for yourself (link opens .pdf).
“Everyone’s a winner,” proclaimed both sides — sides that started Monday as bitter opponents and ended Wednesday as allies.
Ag wins, Fisher said, because now we have certainty for better “risk management.” HSUS wins, Pacelle said, because the deal “constitutes the single biggest ever animal welfare package I’ve seen in our movement.”
In my opinion, this is no reason for agriculture to cheer. Let’s call it what is really is: a politically-driven, back-room deal.
They call politics the “art of compromise.” Elected officials compromise because they need to assemble a simple majority to implement a policy or pass a bill. Politicians quickly learn the art of compromise to survive.
I have to ask myself: Is that what just happened here in Ohio? Did agriculture need to compromise to survive? And no matter which way I look at it, the answer is “no.” But did agriculture get tangled up in one or more politicians’ survival tactic of compromise? Undoubtedly, yes. And we may never know the real closed-door reasons and pressures.
Negotiating and compromise are necessary, yes. Dialogue and considering differing perspectives are valuable, yes. But why now?
Legitimate dog breeders? Throw them under the bus. Exotic animals? What’s the definition? Doesn’t matter. Throw them under the bus, too.
Science? Well, let’s say out of one side of our mouths that we’ll fund projects to identify best management practices, but out of the other, let’s recommend banning any new egg farms that use conventional battery cages (even though science has found advantages and disadvantages to both caged and noncaged operations).
In audio on the Ohio Farm Bureau’s website, CEO Jack Fisher’s own words illustrate the possible futility of this exercise: “Their [HSUS] mission is to put us out of business, in my opinion, they have not backed away from their position, nor have we.”
There is nothing to guarantee HSUS won’t haul out those signatures at a later date.
“Failure to implement the provisions related to wild and dangerous animals or the reforms recommended to the OLCSB by Dec. 31, 2010, could void the agreement and allow the HSUS to pursue a ballot initiative whenever it chooses.”
The language is pretty clear: If the livestock board doesn’t toe the line and adopt the recommendations, the HSUS hammer will come down. So much for autonomy of the board — even though I still cling to that hope.
And the ag groups are telling us that this memorandum of understanding — which is not legally binding — is still a work in progress and is open to modification.
So what would have happened if ag had walked away from the negotiations? Worst-case scenario would be that the HSUS-backed Ohioans for Human Farming would have secured the necessary signatures to place their initiative on the November ballot. And, if passed by voters, the initiative would have required the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board to adopt certain provisions.
Some of those provisions the board is already considering (euthanasia and downer cow standards), so there would have been little change there. The biggest change would have been the time period for phasing in of veal, laying hen and pregnant sow housing standards.
But it’s doubtful the group would’ve even had enough valid signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.
And so now’s the time to negotiate?
Farmers across the country were looking to Ohio as a model for dealing with animal rights activists and creating livestock care standards. We were, as the national Animal Agriculture Alliance put it, a “symbolic battleground for agriculture.” What have they learned by watching us? That an extremist group with a stated vegetarian and vegan mission and deep pockets is welcome at the ag table.
So much for sending Pacelle “and his band of anti-agriculture activists packing back to Washington D.C.,” the sound bite from OFB President Brent Porteus that earned a rousing round of applause from delegates during last December’s OFBF annual meeting.
No, let’s have them over for dinner, instead. Just be sure to serve a salad.
By Susan Crowell