This year voters in Berkeley, California, will get to choose whether to ban factory farms in its city limits – marking the first time in the US that such a measure has been put on the ballot.
It may seem like an unusual mandate for a city that presently has no factory farms. (There’s a horse race track field that would be shut down if the measure passes.) But the activists behind the ballot initiative say it’s part of a broader strategy to ban this type of industrial style of livestock production in which cattle, chickens and pigs are held in confined spaces before slaughter.
If successful in Berkeley, a liberal San Francisco Bay Area town that’s often been at the forefront of US environmental policy, the method can be replicated elsewhere, they say.
“We can pave the path to abolishing factory farming,” said Cassie King, an organizer with Direct Action Everywhere, one of the groups that pushed for the measure.
There’s some reason to think that what starts as a local ordinance in Berkeley could catch on nationwide. Berkeley was among the first cities to ban the sale of new fur; now it’s a California-wide policy. Berkeley was also among the first cities to impose soda taxes and a ban on gas stoves – both of which sparked contentious national debates on the issues.
Other initiatives include “Green Monday”, which, similar to “meatless Mondays”, requires all city-owned and -managed facilities and programs to provide only vegan food options on this day to encourage people to reduce their environmental impact. The city also approved a “healthy checkout” ordinance, requiring grocery stores to offer healthier items in the checkout aisle.
But not everyone is convinced the factory farming measure will have similar results.
Ninety percent of livestock in the US are raised in factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This type of industrialized agriculture has long been the target of animal welfare and environmental advocates, who point to their cruel treatment of livestock, as well as their threat to public health through contamination of air and waterways.
But there appears to be an appetite for change. A 2019 poll showed that 57% of likely US voters support greater oversight for animal farms, and 43% say they support a ban on new CAFOs.
In 2021, New Jersey senator Cory Booker reintroduced legislation known as the Farm System Reform Act, which would place a moratorium on new and expanding CAFOs, as well as phase out the largest ones by 2040. As debate approaches over the next farm bill – the package of agriculture policies that’s renewed every five years – hundreds of local, state and national advocacy organizations wrote a letter endorsing the inclusion of the farm system reform act.
And last year, the supreme court upheld California’s Proposition 12, which bans the sale of pork, chickens and veal within the state if it comes from farms that confine pigs in small cages.
But the factory farm industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States, and has a record of aggressively pushing back against reform efforts and environmental and climate policies. It’s also managed to secure huge subsidies from the federal government: animal agriculture receives $10.7bn per year, 800 times the money that plant-based or cultivated meat does, according to one study.
Tajinder Uppal, lead organizer of the Animal Legal Defense Fund of Berkeley Law, expects industry money to “start pouring in” to campaigns where there is a significant factory farming presence.
One tactic the meat industry commonly uses is mass disinformation and smear campaigns, says Chris Carraway, an attorney with the Animal Activist Legal Defense Project, a law clinic devoted to representing activists facing prosecution.
“It takes a lot of signatures for these ballot measures to even get approved to be put on the ballot,” Carraway said. “So to disregard the opinion of thousands of people who just want a voice in considering whether these [factory farms] should exist in their community as extremists, I think it’s offensive.”
The activists behind Berkeley’s ballot initiative hope the initiative will spark change at the local level, starting in the Bay Area. If Berkeley votes to ban factory farms, then other cities may be inclined to do the same. (Denver, Colorado, will put a similar measure on the ballot this November, to ban slaughterhouses and the sale of fur. If passed, a lamb slaughterhouse called Superior Farms, Inc will be forced to close.)
In Sonoma county in the northern Bay Area, where advocates are already trying to get a similar measure on the ballot this year, it’s a tougher sell in an area with a large poultry and egg industry. The Sonoma county farm bureau, which represents local agricultural interests, has already spoken out against this initiative.
“The question on local initiatives is: what work do they do? Do they start broader conversations? Maybe,” said Julie Guthman, professor of sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz and a Berkeley resident for more than 40 years. “Berkeley always has a reputation of being kind of off the deep end. Even though it’s not all that radical, that’s how people perceive it. And so I think there’s a chance of it being written off.”
How industry reacts to the proposed ban will shape the course of events, she says, ultimately influencing the opportunity to bring the issue of factory farming into public discourse, saying she’s skeptical that such a ban will ever work in a city “where CAFOs matter”.
But Uppal is hopeful. “It only takes about five seconds of factory farm footage for the average person to realize: ‘Something is wrong here.’ If the animal rights movement empowers more people to vocalize this intuition, I’m confident we will succeed.”