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Pigs, calves and democracy in America

by Peter Singer

PRINCETON, New Jersey — Amid all the headlines about the Democrats gaining control of the U.S. Congress in the November elections, one big election result was largely ignored. Although it illuminated the flaws of America’s political system, it also restored my belief in the compassion of ordinary Americans.

In Arizona, citizens can, by gathering a sufficient number of signatures, put a proposed law to a direct popular vote. This year, one of the issues on the ballot was an act to prohibit tethering or confining a pregnant pig, or a calf raised for veal, in a manner that prevents the animal from turning around freely, lying down and fully extending his or her limbs.

Those who know little about modern factory farming may wonder why such legislation would be necessary. Under farming methods that were universal 50 years ago, and that are still common in some countries today, all animals have the space to turn around and stretch their limbs.

Today, however, about 90 percent of U.S. breeding sows — the mothers of the pigs that are raised and killed for pork, bacon and ham — spend most of their lives locked in cages that measure about 0.6 meters by 2.2 meters. They are unable to turn around, lie down with their legs fully extended, or move more than a step forward or backward. Other sows are kept on short tethers that also prevent them from turning around.

Veal calves are similarly confined for all their lives in individual stalls that do not permit them to turn around, lie down, or stretch their limbs. These methods are, essentially, labor-saving devices — they make management of the animals easier and enable units with thousands or tens of thousands of animals to employ fewer and less skilled workers. They also prevent the animals from wasting energy by moving around or fighting with each other.

Several years ago, following protests from animal-welfare organizations, the European Union commissioned a report from its Scientific Veterinary Committee on these methods. The committee found that animals suffer from being unable to move freely and from the total lack of anything to do all day. Common sense would, of course, have reached the same conclusion.

Following the report, the EU set dates by which close confinement of these animals would be prohibited. For veal calves, that date, Jan. 1, 2007, is almost here. Individual stalls for sows, already outlawed in Britain and Sweden, will be banned across the entire EU from 2013. Measures to improve the welfare of laying hens, which are typically kept crammed into bare wire cages with no room to stretch their wings, are also being phased in.

In the United States, no such national measures are anywhere in sight. In the past, when my European friends have asked me why the U.S. lags so far behind Europe in matters of animal welfare, I have had no answer. When they pressed me, I had to admit that the explanation could be that Americans care less about animals than Europeans.

Then, in 2002, animal welfare advocates put a proposal to ban sow stalls on the ballot in Florida. To the surprise of many, it gained the approval of 55 percent of those voting. Last month in Arizona, despite well-funded opposition from agribusiness, the ban on small cages for sows and veal calves also passed, with 62 percent support.

Neither Florida nor Arizona are particularly progressive states — both voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004. So the results strongly suggest that if all Americans were given a chance to vote on keeping pregnant pigs and calves in such tight confinement, the majority would vote no. Americans seem to care just as much about animal welfare as Europeans do.

To explain the gap between Europe and the U.S. on farm-animal welfare, we should look to the political system. In Europe, the concerns of voters about animal welfare have been effective in influencing members of national parliaments, as well as members of the European Parliament, resulting in national legislation and EU directives that respond to those concerns.

In the U.S., by contrast, similar concerns have had no discernible effect on members of Congress. There is no federal legislation at all on the welfare of farm animals — and very little state legislation, either. That, I believe, is because agribusiness is able to put tens of millions of dollars into the pockets of congressional representatives seeking re-election. The animal welfare movement, despite its broad public support, has been unable to compete in the arena of political lobbying and campaign donations.

In U.S. electoral politics, money counts for more than the opinions of voters. Party discipline is weak, and congressmen must themselves raise most of the money that they need for re-election — and that happens every two years for members of the House of Representatives. In Europe, where party discipline is strong and the parties, not the individual candidates, finance election campaigns, money plays a smaller role. In the U.S., a nation that prides itself on its democratic traditions, pigs and calves are hardly the only losers.