An Election-Day test for Big Ag and Big Soda

The farm lobby has a reputation for punching above its weight when it comes to federal policy, while the beverage industry usually has prevailed easily in arguments over soda taxes. Their winning records will be tested in Tuesday’s general election, when polls suggest agricultural groups will lose referendums in Massachusetts and Oklahoma.

Three cities in the Bay Area — San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, CA — and Boulder, CO, will vote on soda taxes. More than $50 million has been spent on the campaigns in San Francisco and Oakland, says the New York Times — more money than was spent on the U.S. Senate race and two statewide referendums on gun control and marijuana legalization. The beverage industry is out-spending proponents by a 3-to-2 margin. The campaign on the soda tax in Boulder is likely to be twice as expensive as any other contest in city history, says the Daily Camera newspaper.

Oklahoma farm groups say a right-to-farm amendment to the state constitution will protect farmers and ranchers from needless regulation and litigation by animal rights activists and anti-GMO campaigners. North Dakota and Missouri approved a similar amendment despite opposition by small-farm, environmental and animal-welfare groups. In Oklahoma, the usual coalition of opponents was joined by the Oklahoma Municipal League, which says the amendment could interfere with access to drinking water for cities.

The largest newspaper in the state, the Oklahoman, urged a “no” vote on right-to-farm. “The potential unintended consequences are significant and it’s wrong to give one industry constitutional protection that other industries do not enjoy,” said the Oklahoma City newspaper.

The nonpartisan Sooner Poll said support for the amendment fell dramatically in recent weeks, with conservatives turning against it. In late October, polling showed 37 percent supported the amendment and 49 percent opposed it with 14 percent undecided. The Sooner Poll says support for ballot questions is more volatile than support for a candidate for office.

In Massachusetts, polls show 2-to-1 support for a voter initiative to require producers to provide enough space for animals to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs fully, and bar the sale of eggs, pork and veal from outside the state unless produced under similar standards. Backers say it’s a question of humane treatment of livestock. Opponents say the rules would drive up production costs and boost food prices.

Massachusetts has a comparatively small agricultural sector. Only one egg farm in the state has battery cages for hens. If voters approve Question 3, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2022. The Humane Society of the United States is the largest donor in the campaign, giving $1 million.

The owners of Diemand Farm, with 3,000 hens in battery cages, say if Question 3 passes, they will have to refurbish their barn, reduce their flock to 500 hens and stop selling eggs wholesale, says news site Beacon Hill Patch.

In the Bay Area, said the New York Times, “The battle is the biggest so far by health advocates in their efforts to reduce the consumption of sugary carbonated soft drinks that they say leads to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay … Research from Mexico, which passed a national soda tax in 2014, shows that the taxes can drive down soda consumption. But it is not known yet whether those reductions will result in better health.”

The soda-tax campaign in Boulder could cost $2.1 million, said the Daily Camera. “Two-thirds of that is expected to come from the campaign against the tax.”

The California cities are considering a 1-cent-an-ounce tax on sugar beverages. Boulder has a 2-cent tax on its ballot. In all of the cities, proponents present the tax as a public health measure. Berkeley, in 2014, became the first city in the country to approve a soda tax. The Philadelphia City Council approved a 1.5-cent tax during the summer as a budgetary measure. The Cook County Board is to vote on a 1-cent soda tax in mid-November. It was proposed as a way to avert law-enforcement layoffs.

For more on the soda-tax story, check out FERN’s recent piece with The World, from PRI, as well as this infographic.