April 24, 2015
“I can’t even watch those videos.”
That’s the most common response I get when I discuss undercover footage taken by animal advocates on industrial farms. And it’s understandable. It’s painful to watch an animal suffer, especially when you feel helpless to intervene.
But what if you literally couldn’t even watch those videos?
Here’s what: consumers would never have learned about the suffering of mother pigs raised in cages so small they can’t turn around, and the pork industry would not have felt pressure to drop that inhumane practice. We would not have known that cows too sick to stand up were being fork-lifted into slaughter and sent into the nation’s school food supply, which led to criminal charges and the country’s largest meat recall. Public health, workers’ rights and animal groups may never have known to block an increase in chicken slaughter speeds that could have led to higher rates of rough animal handling, worker injury and foodborne illness.
Knowledge causes outrage, and outrage sparks reform – and that’s exactly why the animal agriculture industry has been pushing for the introduction of “ag-gag” legislation across the country. These state bills aim to silence whistleblowers who would reveal illegal and unethical behavior on industrial farms. As the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future report on the current state of food animal production notes, the three main ways these laws criminalize investigations is by 1) banning unauthorized filming or photography in agricultural facilities, 2) prohibiting advocates from gaining employment at agricultural facilities under false pretenses, and/or 3) stipulating an unreasonably short time frame in which animal abuse evidence must be presented to authorities, making a full investigation impossible.
This is not just about animal treatment. The bills block the exposure of food safety threats, unsafe working conditions, and environmental problems at industrial farms. As this blogpost reported, CAFOs make very bad neighbors, and concerned citizens have used images and videos to fight water contamination, air pollution, run-off and property devaluation from industrialized agriculture. Responsible farmers also stand to lose when factory farms are allowed to operate with impunity. The corner-cutting practices captured in undercover videos are the ones that undercut the viability of ecologically sound, more humane farmers. That’s why opposition to these bills has come from a broad coalition of interests, whose strength is rooted in its unique diversity.
Animal welfare, food safety, environmental protection, sustainable farming, civil liberties, workers’ safety and community activist groups have banded together to defeat ag-gag bills in almost all of the 26 states that have introduced them. This year, seven states have introduced new anti-whistleblower bills; all have been defeated except in North Carolina, where the battle wages on. As a top producer of pork and chicken, and a state where investigations on farms have revealed animal abuse and environmental concerns, North Carolina agribusiness is trying desperately to push this bill into law.
The ASPCA is encouraging anyone tired of industry’s attempts to keep consumers in the dark to take to social media and offer their reason for wanting to #OpenTheBarns. Scrolling through the Tweets using the hashtag reveals perhaps the only silver lining of ag-gag bills: they have united a movement of advocates, farmers and disparate interest groups dedicated to reforming our food system to be more humane, transparent, safe and sustainable. Farmers with nothing to hide are posting photos of how they proudly raise animals on pasture. Whistleblower protection groups are highlighting the brave individuals who spoke up about what they saw. Parents just want to know where the food they feed their families comes from. Civil libertarians cite first amendment concerns. And animal lovers across the country believe animals should not suffer in secrecy. While it may be hard to watch those videos, Americans understand that it would be far scarier if we couldn’t see behind the barn doors at all.
Image: Farm Sanctuary.