“Ag-gag” bills—introduced in more than a dozen states and already enacted in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and Utah—are reviled for good reason. By prohibiting undercover filming at animal agribusinesses, they impede the free flow of information.
But fighting these bills does not an animal-rights campaign make.
It slants the matter of who will face the police—the deviant animal handler or the one who filmed the deed—but it won’t protect animals.
Internet petitions can proliferate, insisting on our right to images of the worst animal abuses and exhorting states to prove their largest factory farms have nothing to hide. Yet somebody will always be committing the worst animal abuses as long as animal agribusiness continues. And the slaughter plant that follows the regulations to the letter is still a place of horror.
Where ag-gag laws flounder, people can resume applying for agribusiness jobs, and continue supplying footage to advocacy groups. That means many years of gory videos ahead of us, lest anyone has not seen enough.
Again, let me be clear: repressing information isn’t good. These laws are overprotective of business owners, and nasty to whistleblowers. But policing the farm is hardly a radical idea; indeed, corporate interests can find something to like in it because criminalizing anything is lucrative. Meanwhile, the investigation role turns activists into components of what they strive to expose, caught up in an endless symbiotic relationship between the farm-watchers and the farms they watch.
The Whole Foods Covenant
While big ag would like to banish pesky videographers in the interest of profit protection, plenty of animal handling and slaughtering benefits from sickening videos. Whole Foods Market jumps to mind. This multinational retailer makes a fortune with its “Animal Welfare Rating” concept and CEO John Mackey has even scored a spot on the Humane Society of the United States Board of Directors. And a pig farmer named Joe Maxwell, hired by the Humane Society to advance the expansion of the “humane” meat market, is one of Whole Foods Market’s suppliers.
At Whole Foods Market, you pay extra to obtain milk from a “happy herd,” buy a turkey from a farmer who promises to cry when slicing the bird’s artery, or carry eggs in a bag proclaiming “Chicks Dig Cage-Free” through aisles festooned with images of salt-of-the-Earth animal suppliers. This corporation benefits from public access to shocking agribusiness exposés because it purports to offer the uncruel alternatives, winning praise and PR from the many of the same advocates who finish and release the undercover videos about other suppliers.
Whole Foods’ hogwash nothwithstanding, low-volume farms can be as brutal as their high-volume counterparts. There’s no legally binding definition for cage-free eggs, for example, and stuffing birds into a shed isn’t much better than jamming them into a cage. And even if the supplier is actually using pasture lands, consider the ramifications. Just like suburban development, pasture development eats up land. The happy herders are yet another form of sprawl. (No points for guessing what happens to free-living predators around “Animal Welfare Rating 1” suppliers.)
We can vanquish ag gag lawmaking and happy-meat flackery all at once: Let’s just stop buying the stuff. Engage the demand side: the power of people to disengage from oppressive systems. It’s completely within our power to withhold our support from animal agribusiness. It might be inconvenient, but it’s the truth: nothing else is going to stop the abuse.
Lee Hall is Legal VP for Friends of Animals, a candidate for Vermont Law School’s LL.M. in environmental law (2014); and the author of On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth (2010). Follow Lee on Twitter: @Animal_Law.
Photo of bag by Ginger Burr.