Ag-Gag Bills Show Factory Farms Are Bothered by What They Are

Written by

Mat McDermott

Photo: Faul/Flickr

Though so-called Ag-Gag bills have been circulating for several years now, over the weekend a New York Times article really brought the existence of these laws—which specifically criminalize undercover filming or photography on farms, beyond existing trespassing laws—to a much wider audience. 

Currently seven states have some form of "farm protection" legislation: Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont. North Carolina currently has one proposed—introduced the same day as a Butterball employee pled guilty to animal cruelty—as do roughly a dozen other states. 

Going back a bit, in 2011 Florida tried to make unauthorized photography of a farm a felony. Meanwhile, Minnesota tried making exposing animal cruelty a crime resulting in a 10 year term in prison, as would have legislation proposed in Iowa

The latest incarnations of these bills have been refined from the earliest legislation. Some common provisions now included in Ag-Gag legislation have been inspired by the ALEC "model bills" used by oil lobbyists. They would, among other restrictions, have undercover investigators designated as terrorists, and require anyone witnessing abuse to report it within 24 hours.

The first part is utterly ridiculous. The second part is no doubt intended to sound like these bills are designed to crack down on animal cruelty, but in reality would prohibit either undercover investigators or whistleblowing farm workers from documenting patterns of abuse on farms, from finding out if a single instance of cruelty is just that, a one-off affair, or something more systemic. It would also, no doubt, limit the scale of prosecutions, both in severity of charge and number of people charged with abuse. 

This undercover investigation at an egg farm took two months of work by a Mercy for Animals affiliate who'd found a job at the farm in question.

Speaking on Democracy Now! this morning, Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance laid out the industry association position:

"These undercover videos are harmful to the farm owners…the farm families that work those farms day and day out; and the animal agriculture industry, truly, as a whole. These videos damage their reputations. They bring harsh criticisms. These videos often have found no legitimate incidents of abuse. They use manipulated footage. They show false narrative of the images being shown. They're meant to shock and awe consumers."

It's a complex statement in motivation, but it's essentially true—except, strongly, for the part about manipulated footage. (Meredith failed to provide a single example of footage actually being manipulated in any way. And I have to believe that if this was the case, in the course of prosecution, this would have been made a point by the attorneys defending the accused farmers.)

The fact of the matter is these videos can be harmful to farm owners. They can be harmful to farm workers—undercover videos at factory farms have resulted in criminal prosecution for animal cruelty. These videos do damage the reputation of the farms shown in the videos, as well as being a strong indictment of current standard industry practices. They do shock viewers. 

The Animal Agriculture Alliance is entirely correct in saying all these things happen. 

But they utterly fail to realize that their statement is true because either what's being documented is either illegal, or, perhaps even worse, because what's being shown is, sadly, perfectly legal treatment of farm animals—sentient, feeling, often highly intelligent, living beings. And the average person is deeply moved by such videos, by the disconnect between their idea of how animals are treated on farms and the reality of the situation in the early 21st century.

Undercover investigations are the only time most of us get to peek behind through the windows to see what happens in the food factory.

As with the fossil fuel industry, the chemical industry, and much of the fashion industry, modern agribusiness relies on opacity to keep alive the illusion their marketing materials and advertising represents.

Transparency in any of these industries is bad for business. At least that's the perception. It exposes the regularity with which oil spills happen, or accidents happen in mining, or what happens after a mountaintop is blown off for coal. It shows you the people earning a pittance to make the shirt you just paid handsomely for. And it shows you how poorly animals are most often treated to provide you food. 

Absent 24/7/365 livestreaming of farms and slaughterhouses, as Jedediah Purdy suggests in a follow-up to the New York Times story which spawned this piece, and absent actual regulations that cover the entire process of animal agriculture that actually prevent cruelty, undercover investigations are the only time most of us get to peek behind through the windows to see what happens in the food factory.

Perhaps, in an earlier era, where more people lived either on farms or in close proximity to them, things were different. Certainly, at the very least, the scale of farming was radically different. Concentrated animal feeding operations (the near-euphemistic technical designation given by the EPA to what are popularly called factory farms) are a very recent thing, in the millennia-old history of human's domestication of animals. 

I could go on and on in this direction. I'll leave it by saying, for my own transparency, that I'm a vegetarian, not a vegan; I think it is possible to treat animals with respect while using them in agriculture, though killing them is certainly beyond the pale, and respect is far from the norm. I also think that Ag-Gag laws are a blatant industry attempt to maintain the status quo regarding poor treatment of animals and to maintain an utterly broken food system in the United States. 

This Humane Society investigation into a pig farm was popular enough to win a Webby last year, but would be illegal under most Ag-Gag bills.

But Ag-Gag laws are, in a way, a symbol of something bigger that's going on in society. 

As the ability of everyone–private citizens, corporations, and government alike–to more and more easily document the world around us (and disseminate that information very quickly and widely) grows, there's an equally growing backlash from all sides. This ubiquity of imaging brings to the fore deep concerns we all have about ourselves and how we're seen.

Turning away from agriculture, look at the intimidation of reporters and no-fly zones created by Exxon in the latest oil spill in Arkansas, all in an attempt (hidden behind safety concerns) to control what the public sees. Even casually following Carlos Miller's Photography is Not a Crime reveals how police departments across the United States don't want anyone filming them—even though police departments increasingly film protests and protestors. 

Reaction against Google's gathering of imagery, either for Street View, or via Google Glass, has been strong, to put it mildly. The realization that regular drone surveillance of American life is coming fast and hard upon us has spawned legislation in New Hampshire proposing to ban aerial photography, unless of course you're the government. 

The prosecution of Bradley Manning isn't about violations of military regulations regarding classified information, despite what the legal documents say; it's about the exposure of what solidly appear to be war crimes and retribution against the person who did that. There's fear of imagery all around.

You could find more examples, but that should suffice. It's all just an extension of concerns about the face we present to the world, how we control our image, and what can be done with it. The issues are the same whether you're an individual, a business, or a government (or agent of the government). 

If you were a factory farmer who was really okay with the current state of affairs, you would at least try to make that argument in defense.

We all want to be seen in the way we want to be seen. We want to obscure any differences between ourselves and our actions, how we perceive those actions, and how how want all of that to be perceived by others.

Ideally, there shouldn't be much of a difference between those, that is if we have right knowledge of ourselves and act upon it. We have less control over the perception by others, but if we are acting consistently and in a way we believe is right, why should we be concerned that others are witnessing, and even documenting that? Most often I imagine it could be because we know what we do is perceived negatively by others (even if we believe it right) or because it's even illegal and we know it's illegal.  

In the case of farming, what's being documented is sometimes illegal and sometimes legal but deeply unsettling. Interestingly, even the farmers or the industry associations behind them must know themselves that something's not quite right with some of what's happening. Otherwise you wouldn't hear arguments about defamation of farms and farmers, and so forth.

If you were a factory farmer who was really okay with the current state of affairs, deeply convicted that your actions are legal, however unsettling, and nevertheless necessary, you would at least try to make that argument in defense. You'd willingly let regular documentation happen. You'd say this is what we do, this is who we are, we're at ease with that. 

Topics: agriculture, animal warfare, photography, activism, privacy

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