Industrial agriculture, like most powerful business interests, has a very effective lobbying organization not only in DC, but also in state capitols around the country. Over the last few years they’ve been stung by surreptitious video recordings taken on a few farms showing examples of egregious animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental degradation. See examples here, here, and here.
Needless to say, it makes them look bad, which of course they don’t like. Now let me state right from the start here that I and the organization I represent, Slow Food USA, are not at all anti-farmer, and firmly believe that a vast majority of America’s farmers are honest, hardworking, industrious and well-meaning keepers of their land and heritage. That said, there are exceptions, and like in any industry, a few bad apples can make the whole bunch look bad.
But instead of working hard to stop those few bad actors, Big Ag’s response is to try to criminalize the whistleblowers. And their first attempts, in four states (Florida, Minnesota, Iowa and most recently New York) are so far reaching as to beg obvious 1st amendment questions to say the least.
Take for example Iowa’s proposed bill, which as I type has passed the Republican controlled House and is pending in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Formally titled “SF431: An Act relating to offenses involving agricultural operations, and providing penalties and remedies,” it makes it a criminal offense to photograph, video-or-audio-record any farm without the owners consent. It goes well beyond making it illegal for you to stop by the side of the road and take a snap of those cute sheep or that gorgeous old barn (though it does do that). It also makes it illegal to possess and/or distribute such images, putting them on par with child pornography.
Not only would it mean that, for example, the producers of the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. would face penalties, but also that yours truly could be fined or jailed simply for the hyperlinks I referred you to in the second paragraph, above. Imagine what our food system might look like today if some similar disruption of free speech had stopped Upton Sinclair from publishing The Jungle.
Slow Food has a petition circulating against the bills, which I urge you to sign (over 33K have already). I will hand deliver this petition to the Iowa Senate. We also have a beautiful and fun campaign going on our Facebook page called “Farmarazzi,” requesting that people send in photos of farms near them to demonstrate that a well-run farm has nothing to hide.
Now some of the farmers I have spoken with tell me that it is a matter of privacy, and that they all suffer when videos surface that make them all look bad or that somehow portray them in a false light. Doubtless some commenters below will take that tack. But to them I say this: In cases of trespassing, breaking and entering, or slander and liable, we already have laws in place for all of those offenses. But the bill in question does not protect animals, does not protect farmers, does not protect eaters, does not protect the environment, (does not create jobs by the way), and does not pass the constitutional laugh test.