It has been amusing to listen to the agricultural industry griping in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold California’s ban on pork sourced from farms that use gestation crates for sows. Big ag wishes that folks would stop paying attention to their food. Their message is, “Shut up, eat your supper, and be happy you get to eat anything at all. Kids in Africa are starving and you wouldn’t hear them complaining that their bacon comes from pigs raised in terrible conditions, no sir.”
The quick summary of the fracas goes like this: In 2018 California voters approved Proposition 12, a statewide ban on the sale of meat and eggs from animals that didn’t comply with certain welfare standards. There were rules for cattle and laying hens, but the section on pigs hogged all the attention because it required sows to have at least 24 square feet (think of a cage 6 ft by 4 ft, or 8 ft by 3 ft). It really isn’t much room for an animal that weighs twice as much as I do, but it would at least give the pigs room to stand up and to turn around. But even these crowded conditions were too restrictive for the pork industry, where sows are typically only allotted 14 square feet in a gestation crate. The lobby fought back, arguing all the way to the Supreme Court, only to have the court reject their arguments (with a very interesting coalition of Democrat- and Republican-appointed justices landing on each side of the decision). Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, quipped, “While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.” In the days after the decision, various senators from major pork-producing states have been promoting legislation to overturn laws like California’s Proposition 12.
I’ll admit that I don’t have a strong ideological position on the legal merits of this case. For the Supreme Court to accept a case, it generally has to be complicated — the sort of case where, even if you feel strongly about it, you still have to admit that both sides are holding onto some important constitutional principle. The whole reason the case has landed before the court must be due to the way multiple principles clash with one another. I’m not proposing to enter my opinions on whether in this case states’ rights or the commerce clause should have been viewed as preeminent; I’m a farmer and not a constitutional jurist. But I do believe that the way this played out tells us a lot about the food industry.
Nothing to See Here
Big ag and big food really don’t want people to know what’s going on with their food. The less we know, the better for business. They can mass produce anything from pork to potatoes to pineapples, and they’d rather that we just ate what they put in front of us. When food is just a commodity, one chicken breast is the same as any other chicken breast. The food industry loves dealing with undifferentiated commodities because it is so efficient.
California consumes 13% of the country’s pork, but even converting 13% of the pig facilities into something just a little more humane has been treated as an impossibility. Instead of working to change their practices to suit the evolving market demands (and maybe just passing the price increases on), they’ve spent the last five years fighting every step of the way. They can’t abide the thought that the people might have something to say about food.
We’ve seen similar backlashes against laws in the recent past. Mexican President López Obrador announced in 2021 that he would fulfill a campaign promise to prohibit growing or importing GMO corn, and the food and agricultural companies immediately pressed for retaliatory actions against Mexico. And since the food industry is multinational, it doesn’t much mind pitting any country against another. In 2014 they incited Mexican beef producers to protest the USDA’s decision to establish country of origin labeling for meat, and this year they have been getting Canadian beef producers riled up to argue against a similar attempt to let people know where their meat comes from. They just don’t want us to know anything about our food.
I appreciate the way our work in farming has introduced us to people who really care about their food. I field (literally — I’m often out in the field) multiple emails and phone calls every day from folks asking about our food. Sometimes the volume of questions can be overwhelming, but I believe that if we are going to create a real alternative to the current food system, it’s up to us as food producers to be completely transparent. If we ever get too big to answer people’s questions, we’re probably just too big. You owe it to yourself to know about your food.