American agriculture’s great cover-up
US lawmakers have introduced measures limiting documentation of abuses within the agricultural industry. Jeanne Firth explains how "ag-gag laws" have been used to silence activists
13 Jul 12

US lawmakers have introduced measures limiting documentation of abuses within the agricultural industry. Jeanne Firth explains how “ag-gag laws” have been used to silence activists

Food movements in both North America and the EU have been rallying for more visibility in food systems, and the push for more clarity from “farm to fork” has resulted in legislative blacklash to these efforts, known as “agricultural gag laws” or “ag-gag laws”. Backed by powerful agribusiness interests in the United States, ag-gag laws aim to prevent whistleblowers from documenting and disseminating important information about where food comes from and how it is produced.

Ag-gag laws prohibit photographing or videotaping farms without the owner’s consent, punishing undercover journalists and activists working to document abuses — even if there is no evidence of trespassing. In Iowa, reporters who become employees of farms to gain internal access can now be charged with a serious or aggravated misdemeanor. In Utah, disseminating photographs or videos of a farm is now considered a criminal act. This provision is already under fire for First Amendment concerns. The US Supreme Court has previously asserted that the media and others have the right to share information — even if that is information originally gathered through illegal means by someone else.

Since early 2011, 10 states have proposed such laws. The legislation passed into law in Iowa and Utah, but has been defeated in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Minnesota. The New York Senate bill was pulled by its sponsor, and the bill has been ‘indefinitely postponed’ in Nebraska. In Missouri the bill came under fire this May over First Amendment concerns in the Senate’s agriculture committee. As a result, it was tabled. A watered-down compromise was inserted into a separate omnibus agriculture bill: animal abuse footage must be turned over to law enforcement within 24 hours of filming.

In 1990, my agricultural home state of Kansas ushered in the first generation of ag-gag laws, with Montana and North Dakota following suit in 1991. These versions focused primarily on destruction of property which addressed the fear of livestock ‘liberation’ or ‘theft’ by animal welfare activists.

Ag-gag laws are not alone in their attempt to stifle criticism of food production: throughout the 1990s, food libel laws or food disparagement laws were passed in thirteen states. In 1998 the beef industry used this legislation to sue Oprah Winfrey for comments she about the mad cow disease scare in 1996.  In the federal context, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 which made it a crime to intentionally damage, disrupt, or cause the loss of any property (including animals or records) used by an ‘animal enterprise’. The government definition of ‘animal enterprise’ is broad and includes farms, research facilities, zoos and pet stores, circuses and rodeos, and breeding operations.

Corporate agribusiness has not been shy about its active role in introducing and lobbying for the recent bills. Iowa’s sponsor of the bill, Representative Annette Sweeney, was former director of the Iowa Angus Association, and the Iowa Poultry Association affirms that it helped draft the bill.

Agricultural corporations wield considerable power beyond US politics — they now control 40 per cent of the global food trade, and six companies dominate 70 per cent of the international wheat trade. The US legislature is currently laying the groundwork for policies and protocol that could spread internationally.

Although the US is leading the pack, McDonald’s Restaurants vs. Morris & Steel (better  known as ‘the McLibel case’) suggests that food corporations will find ways to silence dissent globally. In the McLibel case, British activists who distributed pamphlets against the fast food giant in 1986 spent 15 years fighting libel writs handed to them in 1990, battling the corporation in the longest case in English history.

There is an acute need in our food system for external watchdogs and legislation that protects — not persecutes — journalists and organisations reporting on farming conditions. As food writer Mark Bittman arguedin his opinion piece about pending ag-gag legislation last year:

“Videotaping at factory farms wouldn’t be necessary if the industry were properly regulated. But it isn’t”.

Caitlin Zittkowski of The Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law agrees:

“In an industry already only minimally constrained by regulation from negatively impacting the environment, ag-gag laws could make it even more difficult to enforce what little law exists…Furthermore, similar protection from public scrutiny and whistle-blowers could spread to other industries with extensive environmental impacts whose lobbyists effectively manage to curry favor with legislators.”

The bottom line is that ag-gag laws allow an industry rife with wrongdoing to keep up the status quo without risk of censure.

If ag-gag legislation is successful, corporate agriculture will likely push for gag rules in areas beyond animal agriculture –including food safety and labour rights. Companies that hire workers to pick grapes or tomatoes will lobby in addition to those that process beef or poultry. It is likely that the tomato industry is already squirming: over 1,000 people working in Florida’s tomato fields have been freed from modern-day slavery in the last 15 years, and groups such as the Coalition of Immokaloee Workers continue to document and disseminate information about the industry’s illegal practices. Many players in industrialised agriculture have dirty laundry to hide.

Jeanne Firth is a programme specialist at Grow Dat Youth Farm, and adjunct professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.