6 June 2012
Measures to penalise investigative reporters who
expose conditions in industrial agriculture are a threat to democracy
Big companies have pushed legislators to pass laws limiting the freedom
to report on conditions at livestock facilities including slaughterhouses.
Multiple states have passed what are known as "ag gag laws", designed to
penalise investigative reporters who explore conditions on industrial
agriculture operations. Many of these laws focus specifically on livestock,
in the wake of numerous exposes on the abuses of livestock in industrial
agriculture. These laws are a significant threat to the freedom of the
press, and it's rather remarkable that they are being allowed to stand. More
than that, they threaten the health and safety of consumers, in addition to
making it difficult and sometimes impossible for consumers to make educated
choices about the sources of their food.
The US should be in an
uproar about ag gag laws, and it's not. That's a telling reflection of
attitudes about agriculture, and illustrates the lack of interest among many
people in the US about journalism and how it functions, and the purpose of
investigative journalism in particular. Attempts to raise awareness about
the issue are often met with indifference; they are not as interesting and
seductive as celebrity scandals, evidently, even though they are far more
scandalous, and impact people's lives more immediately and directly.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the source of the pressure
behind ag gag laws is, of course, industrial agriculture. Big companies have
pushed legislators heavily to pass laws limiting the freedom to report on
conditions at livestock facilities, including ranches, feedlots, and
slaughterhouses. With the benefit of lobbyists, they can exert pressure
directly in the halls of the legislature, as well as doing so indirectly by
contributing to the electoral process and deciding who gets elected. In
states like Iowa, you have to be agriculture-friendly to get elected, and if
you want a chance at beating the competition, you'd better be willing to toe
the line on industrial agriculture so you'll get the needed support.
Several techniques are used in ag gag laws in an attempt to restrict the
ability to report on livestock operations. One option has been quite direct,
with an attempt to ban the distribution of photos and videos taken on farms
without consent of the owner. These attempts have been smacked down on the
grounds that they violate first amendment rights. Taking a new angle,
lobbyists have pushed for legislation that makes lying on job applications
related to agricultural work a criminal offense. A journalist taking an
undercover job, in other words, could be convicted of a crime.
people are not aware of the entirely legal animal abuse in industrial
agriculture, which is one thing journalists can expose; treatment that
appears horrific, wrong, and abusive is actually quite legal in many states.
In other cases, journalists can expose abuses that actually are illegal,
spurring both public outrage and investigation. These kinds of expos�s are
important, because people should know about the source of their food, and
they should be aware of the high price they pay for cheap meat.
not just about animal welfare. Industrial agriculture also trashes the
environment, something that should be of grave concern even to people who
aren't concerned about the health and wellbeing of animals raised for food.
Industrial farms contribute to air, water, and soil pollution, consume vast
volumes of water, and destroy soil biology and animal habitat, because the
goal is to produce as much food as possible as quickly as possible. In this
setting, environmental health is not a significant concern; but
investigative journalism could force action on the subject, pressuring
legislators to clamp down on environmental protection and force industrial
agriculture to clean up its act.
Furthermore, worker abuses are also
a significant concern in industrial agriculture. Slaughterhouses are some of
the most dangerous working environments in the US, and they are staffed
predominantly by immigrants, documented and undocumented, making the minimum
wage or close to it. The work is hard and fast, which means that people are
prone to injury, and in a high-speed production line, there is limited time
to address workplace injuries. Severe disabilities are not uncommon, and in
the case of undocumented workers, there are few resources when it comes to
dealing with disability and seeking compensation when such injuries are
clearly the result of dangerous working conditions.
This is why
investigative journalism is important: because it brings these kinds of
abuses to light and confronts consumers with information about the facts
behind their food. Journalists in a wide range of industries and
environments spend months or years on research, often from the inside, to
prepare stories intended to spark comment, discussion, and change. Ag gag
laws are only one example of an attempt to limit the ability to report
freely on pressing social issues, and they should be a subject of anger and
horror in the population at large. Lobbyists are attempting to limit access
to information, and they are doing so by limiting the abilities of
journalists to do their jobs.
The anger about expos�s is
well-founded; consumers are usually horrified when they see images and video
from livestock facilities, as well they should be. Dead and dying animals
packed close together in unhealthy, dangerous conditions, some with open
sores and other obvious health problems. Animals treated casually and
abusively by staff members who need to work fast, and cannot afford
compassion or gentleness. Horrific conditions in slaughterhouses, where
terrified animals are rushed through the production line and subjected to
utterly inhumane and dangerous conditions. Workers who are tired, working
through overtime, obviously ill, and at high risk of injury.
reaction to expos�s is to silence journalists, rather than addressing the
poor conditions, is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. It is more cost
effective to shut off the stories, rather to fix the problem, and
legislators are evidently happy to go along with this plan, passing ag gag
laws to ensure silence about the continued abuse of farm animals. Consumers,
in turn, tolerate this because they have no idea about the nature of the
news they can't see.