Like ancient Egypt, California is beset by plagues, most of them self-inflicted — homicidal summer wildfires, a crime spike, electricity blackouts, the end of the internal-combustion engine, failing public schools, water shortages, highest-in-the-nation taxes, a COVID response that gutted the economy and did little to contain the virus, metastasizing homelessness, critical race theory, official confusion about obvious differences between men and women, Governor Gavin Newsom, and, of course, University of Southern California head football coach Clay Helton. With all that, it’s hardly surprising that many Californians are fleeing for other states, crossing the Colorado River in a kind of exodus that’s also remindful of Bible stories: For the first time since William McKinley captured the White House, the state’s population is falling.
Even so, it’s a little surprising that the next plague may well be hunger — not actual corpses-in-the-streets famine, but a bacon shortage in which some of the living may envy the dead.
And not just bacon. State regulators are set to block, in January, the sale of chickens, veal calves, and pigs raised in conditions prohibited under 2018’s Proposition 12, the Farm Animal Confinement Initiative. You can’t blame this on Newsom or the state legislature’s Democratic supermajority. Instead, blame California voters, two-thirds of whom believed that they could suspend the laws of economics and that nobody would have to pay for it.
They were wrong, of course. The bacon shortage — newspaper shorthand for a shortage of all pork products — may be unintended, but it was utterly predictable. Pork producers in Iowa and other midwestern states, and poor people all over the U.S., will pay more so that most California voters can feel less bad about themselves.
Like much economic regulation, the passionate animal-welfare campaign for Proposition 12 easily trumped sound farming practice. Proponents argued that hogs shouldn’t be kept in cramped quarters, including “gestation stalls,” pens used to protect vulnerable sows while they are pregnant. They should instead, like Porky Pig, wander more or less free, outfitted perhaps in blue blazers but sans-culottes.
“When you ask a voter if we should adopt a law that prevents animals from being ‘housed in a cruel manner,’ the outcome is pretty predictable,” says economist Steve Meyer, consulting economist for the National Pork Producers Council. “I would probably vote for that if that is all there is to it. But there is much more of course.”
There’s much, much more, but you don’t have to read AgWeb.com or study the movie Snatch to understand the bottom line: Pigs are greedy, even violently omnivorous. In the hog world, therefore, good fences make good neighbors. Under Proposition 12, says Meyer, “we’ll be tossing [the sows] back into a pen with other hogs. A lot of what happens in there is not good for the females. I would argue the welfare rate of those dead and injured sows is itself not very good.”
So count a predictable rise in pig injuries and deaths as a demerit for Proposition 12 — and a cost to farmers and consumers. Another is the predicted increase in space that Proposition 12 requires for pigs. At present, an average sow rates about 16 square feet; under Proposition 12, that real estate will increase by at least 50 percent to 24 square feet, raising producers’ fixed costs and eventually further raising the price of pork.
If that sounds speculative, it’s because state regulators have been slow to describe precisely how pigs can be raised legally for the California market. They got around to issuing proposed guidelines only in late June. Meyer says even if that’s their last word, it’s already too late to fully meet a January 1 deadline: Hog farmers “can’t transform their operations overnight.”
The impact of regulation by what might be called “sympathetic voter impulse” is likely to fall hardest on California’s poor and minorities. They will pay more or they will switch to other proteins; noncompliant hog farmers in the Midwest will dispatch more of their meat to friendlier markets. The resulting supply bump in those other states will depress prices — good for consumers there in the short run, bad for producers and everyone in the long run.
“When elitists capture what they view as the moral high ground, they usually end up sticking it to the poor,” Meyer says.
He points out that with 12 percent of the nation’s population, California consumes 14 percent of the nation’s pork. That’s likely, Meyer says, because of the state’s high representation of Asian, Hispanic, and black residents, groups more likely to purchase pork products.
The Humane Society drafted and backed the 2018 voter initiative, which it called “transformative.” But Prop 12 put the Society in the crosshairs of more-radical animal-rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Friends of Animals. “PETA doesn’t sell animals short. The Humane Society has a history of doing just that,” a PETA spokesperson said during the campaign. “The only way to break the cruelty of animals is to keep them off your plate. You can do more good for animals by not eating them than by doing anything else.”
Maybe. But between that utopian day and this one, California’s poor will end up paying more for food. That, of course, will boost the cost of living in the Golden State — and perhaps accelerate the departure of Californians for other states. In the past, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah have been their likeliest destinations. But Nebraska, the nation’s leading consumer of bacon, looks better every morning.