05/03/2011 - A heated debate is under way in Minnesota over legislation that would criminalize the production or possession of videos of animal agricultural facilities. This bill follows on the heels of similar efforts in Florida and Iowa that aim to provide enhanced shielding from scrutiny for only one industry: large-scale animal agriculture.
The large companies pushing this bill claim that farmers need protection from environmental and animal welfare activists, who in turn insist that the general public and the animals need safeguarding from the industry.
The truth is that both farmers and animals need protection - but not from photographers or animal activists. What they need is less political support directed to an industry that increasingly consolidates and integrates food animal production in ways that harm consumers, rural communities, the animals and farmers themselves.
Industrial animal agriculture is not practiced on family farms, although the industry would like to have the public think so. But these are factories - concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that house hundreds of thousands of chickens or thousands of hogs in a single operation.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 1950 to 2007 the number of U.S. poultry farms dropped from more than 1.6 million to fewer than 30,000, even though the number of broiler chickens produced grew by more than 1,400 percent over the period. Similarly, between 1992 and 2007, the number of hog farms fell by more than 60 percent while the number of hogs grew by about 10 million animals.
The CAFO model relies on having the maximum number of animals in the smallest amount of space, with the minimum number of employees to provide care. "Production units" (which we used to call animals) are kept in appalling conditions that require constant low-level doses of antibiotics to prevent disease - increasing the threat of drug-resistant illness for all of us. These operations also generate high levels of waste, much of which ends up in our water supply. It should come as no surprise that the industry doesn't want anyone to see these facilities, hence the push to criminalize any effort at filming.
The harm generated by this unsustainable model of animal agriculture also extends to farmers. Today, USDA figures reveal that almost 90 percent of all poultry sold in the United States falls under production contracts, where the chickens themselves are no longer owned by the farmers. Instead, those who actually tend the animals have been relegated to the role of "contract growers" by an industry that dictates how and under what conditions the animals will be fed, raised and slaughtered. This same model is increasingly used for hogs.
As a result, farmers assume enormous risk, including liability for waste disposal and mortgages on immense barns, the design and size of which are dictated by the industry. Marketing power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of large, vertically integrated companies that own, process and sell the animal products.
Problems in the system have grown so widespread that last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice initiated an unprecedented series of nationwide workshops to hear from farmers who talked about unfair demands, lack of transparency in the contract process, loss of independence - and fear of retaliation from the industry if they spoke out.
The legislation under debate in Minnesota, like its predecessors in other states, will make it harder for the public to know how their food is produced. Contract farmers have no version of whistleblower protection from predatory contract practices and food animals cannot speak for themselves. Undercover videos often provide the only glimpse we have into the unfair and harmful way our meat is produced. Policymakers seeking to criminalize whistleblower-type actions should reassess their priorities.
About the Writer
Karen Steuer is director of government relations for the Pew Environment Group.