(Columbus Free Press videos are included Here, Here and also Here) The Yes- on- Issue 2 signs you might see around Columbus include the words ‘safe, local, food.’ But both proponents and opponents of the measure say it is an attempt to prevent the Humane Society of the United States from facilitating changes to Ohio’s laws pertaining to confinement practices for farm animals. The confinement practices in question are those that prevent farm animals from having enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around or extend their limbs.

Eriyah Flynn is an animal rights activist working with Mercy For Animals in Columbus, Ohio. “The farm bureau said (to the Humane Society of the United States) ‘we’re not going to work with you.’ The HSUS had wanted to talk with them as they had done in other states. The farm bureau basically rejected them and went to the legislature with basically a big scare tactic, saying ‘look, the HSUS is going to ruin agriculture in Ohio,’” Flynn said.

(Send your input to: thomasover@gmail.com ) According to activists, the controversial confinement practices pertain to factory farms much more than they pertain to small and medium-sized farms. Flynn said officials in the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation were concerned because HSUS had polled Ohioans and got results indicating that 67 percent of Ohioans do not want factory farms in the state.

“The farm bureau knew they were going to lose, so they went to the legislature, scared them to death, pushed this thing through both houses in six days-- two of them were during a weekend,” Flynn said.

During the past several years, using ballot initiatives or statutory measures, seven states have banned gestation crates, five states have banned veal crates, and two states have banned battery cages, used for confining farm animals. The Humane Society of the United States has played a key role in these measures.

The European Union has banned both veal crates and gestation crates. The EU ban on gestation crates goes into effect in 2013. Similarly, in the United States the various bans some states have adopted require years before going into effect. For example, California’s proposition 2 which voters approved in November of 2008, goes into effect in 2015.

Flynn said the Yes on Issue 2 campaign theme of “safe local food” is an example of Orwellian double-speak. “They’re telling people what they want to hear, but doing something different… They (the people behind Issue 2) are not supporting the small farmer. That’s why the Ohio Farmer’s Union is against this. The farm bureau has a track record of ignoring the small farmers. They marginalize them. They do not address their concerns and they put them out of business,” Flynn said.

Some parts of the Yes on Issue 2 campaign message have involved the idea of protecting Ohio agriculture from the meddling of outsiders such as the Humane Society of the United States. Flynn said that message is inaccurate. “Membership in the farm bureau is less than membership in the Humane Society of the United States when you look at the number of members in Ohio,” Flynn said. She said more than 400,000 Ohioans are HSUS members.

Though many of the opponents of Issue 2 have characterized the ballot initiative as a ‘corporate power grab, ’ not all of the organizations supporting a Yes on Issue 2 vote are those which one would think obviously represent the interests of big agri-business. For example, the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks endorses Issue 2. Lisa Hamler-Fugitt is executive director of the association.

“As our state continues to struggle in the worst economy in our lifetimes, with rising hunger, poverty and unemployment rates, the state needs to do everything in its power to ensure that safe, affordable, and locally grown foods are not compromised,” Hamler-Fugitt said.

Some of the people supporting a No vote on Issue 2 have raised concerns about using an amendment to the Ohio constitution to create a regulatory board. In response to that concern, Hamler-Fugitt said, “there are more than a dozen boards and commissions that are housed in the Ohio constitution, including the State Board of Education, the Ohio Ballot Board, and the Tuition Trust Authority.”

Elaborating on the idea that the ballot initiative will prevent outsiders from meddling with Ohio agriculture, Hamler-Fugitt said, “In the past couple of years we’ve had to work when a major food recall happened-one that resulted in a peanut butter recall and the other a chili recall. We know how important it is for Ohioans to make decisions for Ohioans. Our position is that the board will provide an opportunity for Ohioans to know more and work with Ohio’s farmers, growers, and commodities producers, to ensure that this is an Ohio-based focus and that it’s not being driven by a Washington D.C. activist organization that presumes to know best.”

But a campaign finance report released last week indicated that the Yes on Issue 2 campaign has received more than $ 1 million from out-of-state organizations such as the Arizona Pork Council and the Texas Turkey Federation. Nonetheless the website SafeLocalFood.org states that a Yes vote on the ballot initiative is needed to protect Ohio agriculture from “outside activist groups.”

Under the heading “Why Support the Board,” a section of the website reads: “Out-of-state activist groups have signaled they would like to bring an initiative to Ohio that would set rigid, inflexible and impractical rules for how livestock and poultry are housed.

“This would lead to higher costs for consumers, put food safety at risk, increase the amount of food imported to Ohio, cause thousands of farmers to go out of business, and endanger the overall health and well-being of Ohio's flocks and herds.” I spoke about this with Paul Shapiro. He is senior director of the society’s factory farming campaign.

“They can play the xenophobia card if they want, but the reality is Issue 2 is opposed by a whole coalition of groups, both within Ohio and at the national level. It’s opposed by Ohio’s main animal shelters such as the Capital Area Humane Society which is the largest in the state. It’s opposed by the major animal shelters in Cleveland and Toledo. It’s opposed by the Ohio League of Women Voters. It’s opposed by the editorial boards of the major newspapers in the state, including the Columbus Dispatch, the Dayton Daily News, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. These are all Ohio groups,” Shapiro said.

He said the Yes on Issue 2 talking points are a “smoke screen” for “enshrining in the state constitution an industry-dominated council that will dictate agricultural policy in favor of big agri-business.” Shapiro said, “anyone who is concerned about preventing cruelty to animals should vote no on Issue 2.”

In reference to the idea that a Yes vote on Issue 2 is needed to protect the viability of Ohio’s agriculture, Shapiro said, “ seven other states have already enacted reforms that phase out some of the most cruel and inhumane treatment of farm animals.”

Two weeks ago, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a bill that phases out veal crates for calves within three years, and battery cages for laying hens and gestation crates for breeding sows within ten years. Shapiro said the reforms resulted from cooperation between groups which included the Michigan Farm Bureau, the Humane Society of the United States, local animal welfare groups, and agribusiness groups.

“All of us came together and figured out a way to work together to phase out certain systems that are problematic from an animal welfare prospective, and to move the ball forward in a cooperative rather than a confrontational manner,” Shapiro said.

Regarding Ohio’s farm animals, he said “ there are tens of millions of animals who are confined on factory farms in cages that don’t even permit them to engage in basic movement. We’re talking about egg-laying hens in cages so small they can’t even spread their wings. This is a standard industry practice. This is not a case of a few isolated incidences.”

Shapiro said a standard egg industry practice is to confine birds in cages that are so restrictive that they can barely move an inch their entire lives. He said that on veal factory farms, calves are confined in crates so narrow they are unable to even turn around for months.

“This type of extreme life-long confinement is cruel and inhumane. There is a wide body of scientific evidence that demonstrates that it’s detrimental to animal welfare. It ought to be phased out. The purpose of Issue 2 is to prevent any type of animal welfare improvements when it comes to farm animals in the state,” Shapiro said.

In response to Hamler-Fugitt’s support of Issue 2 on behalf of being able to feed hungry people with a safe supply of food, Shapiro said, “ Issue 2 has nothing at all to do with hunger. It has nothing at all to do with food safety…Issue 2 provides the appearance of regulation when in reality it allows the foxes to guard the hen house, and essentially dictate agricultural policy in relation to the treatment of farm animals.”

During an election issues forum sponsored by the Franklin County Consortium for Good Government, Keith Stimpert, who is Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, told the approximately 20 people gathered for the event that if Ohio voters approve Issue 2, it will not affect the ability of Ohioans to weigh in on matters pertaining to farming.

In contrast to Shapiro’s assessment that Issue 2 is an attempt to have the foxes guard the hen house, so to speak, Stimpert said the board would be transparent. An editorial article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer recommended a No on Issue 2 vote, expressing concerns about amending the Ohio constitution so as to create a Livestock Care Standards Board, (as opposed to using a legislative process.)

But Stimpert said the creation of such a regulatory body “doesn’t have to be in the Ohio constitution, but it’s worthy of the constitution and the people should decide (by way of how we vote on the Issue 2 ballot initiative ) whether it’s worthy of the constitution.”

Stimpert also said that livestock care standards will not be written into the Ohio Constitution. “It’s simply the naming of the board and how it should be composed,” he said.

Regarding California’s banning of gestation crates, veal crates and battery cages, Stimpert said California’s agriculture is “in disarray” because of the ban. It may be worth noting that the California ban does not go into effect until Jan 1, 2015, giving farmers seven years to transition to compliance.

At the election issues forum, which took place at the Unitarian church in Clintonville, I presented to Stimpert some of the claims of animal rights activists. “No one can defend animal abuse. Where that’s happening, we need to take care of it. But I think that on the vast majority of our farms, animals are very well cared for,” Stimpert said.

He also said that farm animals in Ohio are “ well-fed, protected from the elements, and protected from predators” and that “ I know a lot of folks are concerned about space issues, but I think we have to look at all factors in producing food today. I think this board can do that.”

While at the election issues forum, I also spoke with Sarah Alexander. She is a senior organizer with Food and Water Watch, an environmental organization based in Washington, D.C.

Like other people who support a No on Issue 2 vote, Alexander said the ballot initiative is indeed a “corporate power grab.” Alexander said, “ the largest, industrial, corporate agriculture check-off groups that exist in the state of Ohio,” are behind the measure.

She said the ballot initiative , if it passes, will create an appointed board that will have unchecked power to control all livestock regulations in Ohio. “The reason this is a problem is that it’s likely these livestock regulations will benefit the largest factory farms,” Alexander said.

She said Ohio has the largest egg producing farm in the United States, with 25 million birds. “ You can bet that their interests would be represented on this board and that our family farmer friends that work with Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association and our organic farmer friends would not be represented on this board. Frankly, this board would make regulations that could harm those small family farmers that are doing it sustainably and that are growing the food we are getting from our local farmer’s markets and grocery stores,” Alexander said.

Proponents of Issue 2 say its needed in order to prevent the Humane Society of the United States from damaging Ohio agriculture by introducing farm animal welfare ballot initiatives. But Alexander said, (referring to the seven states that have adopted measures to phase out one or more farm animal confinement practices) “ the measures that have been put in place take many years for the transition, so there is plenty of time for farmers to transition over to this method of production.

“Frankly, the vast majority of farmers that are producing at a small to medium scale are already employing these practices. It’s the largest, corporate factory farms that are using these confinement techniques.”

Alexander said if Issue 2 passes, the appointed, 13- member board will be able to overrule regulations that come from the Ohio Department of Agriculture or that come from the state legislature.

“They will even be able to overrule ballot initiatives that are not another constitutional amendment. So, ultimately this would put all of the power around animal regulations in the hands of a small group of people. It would take away democracy when it comes to food production. There’s no guarantee that there would be any public input processes for the regulations that this board would make.”