Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why Agriculture Should Oppose "Ag-Gag Laws"

There is a disturbing trend in state legislation -  laws that attempt to criminalize efforts to expose animal abuse in the raising and slaughtering of livestock.  See, e.g., the recent New York Times article, The Taping of Farm Cruelty is Becoming a Crime.

I understand that a business may feel betrayed when a worker takes a position with ulterior motives.  But, the agricultural industry is making a huge mistake if they believe that this issue is about vegan activists, as some mistakenly claim.  The livestock industry needs to step back, engage in some soul-searching self reflection, and listen to their customers.

Do producers and processors really want their message to be -  "yes, all these illegal activities are going on, but the problem is that no one should be taking pictures?"  Is that really the problem?

The video exposes that have involved workers have provided evidence of illegal activity. State legislatures that "go after" those who took the pictures are, in effect, stating that there is illegal activity going on -  we just don't want anyone to alert the press or the officials.  Is that really the message the meat industry wants to send?

The issue of animal welfare in livestock production has been on a path destined for conflict for a number of years.

Animal science in the larger sense has been producing phenomenal studies that show that animals have far more sentience, cognition, and even emotion than ever before realized.  These studies are not just being reported in the science journals and espoused by animal welfare advocates.  Consider last week's Wall Street Journal article, The Brains of Animals, with the headline, "New research shows that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence."

Meanwhile the livestock industry has catapulted in the opposite direction.  We have devised ways to crowd animals into even smaller spaces, concentrate them into larger and larger flocks and herds, and developed new methods of containment. When disease and behavior problems result, we confine them more rigorously, clip and trim them, and feed them antibiotics. From an economic standpoint, it has worked.  It has produced the cheapest meat that the world has ever purchased. There are problems other than animal welfare, such as antibiotic resistance and concentration of manure, but let's just consider the animal welfare issues.

What the industry needs and what consumers are asking for is an honest discussion of how we can reconcile these very different trajectories.  What does it mean to raise an animal humanely?  The livestock industry can bury its head in the sand and pretend that this issue is all about vegetarians, or it can wake up and engage in the issue with honesty, transparency, and self-reflection.  And, the animal science world can and should debate why there is such a wide divergence between scientists on the issues of animal welfare.

I know many farmers that have become uncomfortable with the way that they were raising their livestock. They are not vegetarians; they are not animal rights activists.  They are farmers who want to be good stewards of the animals under their care, and they are being pushed by economic pressures to operate in ways that they are uncomfortable with. Some have gone out of the livestock business because of this.

Same with ordinary consumers.  See, e.g., Pork growers: Don't Ignore Customers - Restaurants will Begin Eliminating the Product from Menus if Changes Aren't Made

Now, is the time for dialogue and transparency, not for state laws criminalizing those who deliver the message.


Blogger Jim Chen said...

Susan, this is reminiscent of the "veggie libel" laws that flourished two decades ago. What is it about agriculture as an industry that leads some farmers and some of their advocates to push for (and secure) speech-suppressing legislation?

4/10/2013 9:58 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Interesting observation. I suppose that it is natural for any industry to react defensively to criticism and to resist change. But, why are they so successful? Sounds like a good article topic for you, Jim.

4/10/2013 10:14 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...

But I've already written it! The American Ideology, 48 Vand. L. Rev. 908 (1995).

4/10/2013 10:16 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Perhaps an updated look? Think of all that has happened, and all that has stayed the same, in the last 18 years!

4/11/2013 11:32 AM  
Blogger Christine Heinrichs said...

Please do a 21st-century look at the issues, Jim. Thanks, Susan, for this analysis. Temple Grandin advocates for all animal livestock operations to put video feeds of their plants online. “We’ve got to get rid of the mystery,” she says. “I think the laws making it a crime for people to take videos and photos in plants are stupid. Every phone is a video camera. These laws send a terrible message to the public,” she told,

4/11/2013 12:29 PM  
Blogger Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Don't miss this NYT op-ed by Jedediah Purdy of Duke, which focuses--as do Susan and Christine--on the benefits of transparency.

4/11/2013 8:28 PM  

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