Update, Nov. 8: Despite calls from dozens of activists to adopt a proposed ban on livestock farming immediately, the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted at its meeting Tuesday night to put the initiative on the November 2024 ballot.
Original story, Nov. 6: Berkeley voters could be asked to ban livestock agriculture within the city next fall after local animal rights groups gathered signatures to put a measure prohibiting what they call “factory farms” on the 2024 ballot.
But the measure may be only symbolic in Berkeley, a city with no commercial livestock farms and few remaining traces of its agrarian past. The single business it could affect, the horse racing track Golden Gate Fields, is slated to shut down before voters go to the polls next November.
The initiative campaign is led by the groups Compassionate Bay and Direct Action Everywhere, an activist organization known for confrontational protests that included a graphic picketing campaign outside a North Berkeley butcher shop and operations to, in the group’s telling, rescue goats, chickens and other animals from abusive farms.
While the ballot measure might have little practical effect, Direct Action Everywhere spokesperson Alison Morikawa said its goal is to spark campaigns for similar bans throughout California and beyond. Members are collecting signatures to put a ban on the ballot in Sonoma County, which is home to major dairy and egg producers.
“What happens in Berkeley, and California generally, sets a cultural precedent,” Morikawa said. “It’s not just going to be Golden Gate Fields [that] we want to stop.”
The proposed ordinance will go before the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday after a petition drive collected nearly 5,000 signatures. The council will have the choice of adopting the ordinance immediately or putting it to the voters.
Titled “No More Factory Farms Berkeley,” the legislation applies to businesses that meet federal regulatory criteria for “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, where animals are kept for more than 45 days in a one-year period. New operations would be barred from opening, and existing facilities would have to shut down within a year.
The proposed ordinance states, “CAFOs are a leading cause of environmental destruction, pose grave risks to public health, abuse and kill nonhuman animals, and often create dangerous and exploitative conditions for workers.”
The Stronach Group, the Canadian firm that owns Golden Gate Fields, did not respond to a request for comment from Berkeleyside.
The company announced in July that it would close the race track at the end of 2023, though the Los Angeles Times has since reported it plans to continue racing through the first half of next year. Direct Action Everywhere and other groups, which have protested Golden Gate Fields on several occasions, have claimed credit for pressuring the Stronach Group to shut down Northern California’s last racetrack.
Still, there is uncertainty about whether the Berkeley initiative would apply to Golden Gate Fields. Councilmember Kate Harrison, who has proposed a separate ordinance regulating the living conditions for horses at the track, said she is seeking guidance from Berkeley’s City Attorney on whether Golden Gate Fields is classified as a CAFO since it isn’t an agricultural operation.
Harrison’s proposed ordinance is moving through Berkeley’s committee process, and will go before the Health, Life Enrichment, Equity and Community Committee on Nov. 13.
The ballot measure campaign could provide a test of Berkeley voters’ desire to take a stand against commercial agriculture, as well as their attitudes about Direct Action Everywhere. The group has drawn criticism from some residents, businesses, former members and other corners of the animal welfare movement for its tactics and internal culture.
Wayne Hsiung, the public face of Direct Action Everywhere and its co-founder, mounted an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Berkeley in 2020, placing second behind Mayor Jesse Arreguín with 24% of the vote. A Sonoma County jury last week convicted Hsiung of one felony charge and two misdemeanors related to protests at poultry farms near Petaluma in 2018 and 2019, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat; Hsiung was taken into custody Thursday, pending a sentencing hearing later this month.
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