We all know about the effort by some agribusiness interests to make it a crime for whistleblowers to take photographs or videos that document the suffering of animals on a factory farm, or for an animal advocate to apply for a job at one of these facilities. These “ag-gag” laws have been widely condemned in the media as efforts by agribusiness to hide the abuse and suffering that animals endure at some operations. If they didn’t have the First Amendment to contend with, maybe factory farmers would next seek to stop journalists from writing unauthorized works about factory farming, or filmmakers from depicting animals languishing in confinement, or artists from painting images of the fouling of our waterways with pig offal from factory farms.
It’s fine, by the factory farmer’s way of thinking, for consumers to buy their products in the marketplace, but please, just don’t ask questions or make demands about how they make those products. Damn those consumers for trying to tell agribusiness that it has to let animals turn around, or for raising a ruckus about the factory farms’ leaking, football-field-sized lagoons of pig feces and urine that infiltrate America’s waterways and reservoirs. They just don’t understand what we do – and just better for them not to worry their heads about it.
If that kind of arrogance is both off-putting and dangerous, then also consider the efforts of factory farmers to tamper with the mechanics of democracy. Last year, in a squeaker of a vote, farm groups succeeded in adding a nebulous and far-reaching “right to farm” amendment to the Missouri constitution. Just about every major paper in Missouri said that adding this “right” to the constitution was like inviting a mud-caked pig onto clean sheets. Opinion leaders thought it was a messy, horrid idea, but in a low-turn-out primary election, it won with the barest majority, 50.1 percent. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for an intense spending campaign (almost certainly fortified by the illegal use of pork check-off funds never permitted to be used for political elections, and with politicians currying favor with the farm lobby by singing the praises of the measure), we would have defeated it.
Factory farmers are now working from the same playbook in Oklahoma. There, the state Farm Bureau has been directing the state attorney general to harass The HSUS, and has been making phony arguments – pivoting from one false claim to the next after a lie is discredited. The Farm Bureau is also pushing a right-to-farm measure that’s now winding its way through the legislature. The Oklahoma measure, which, if lawmakers approve it, would then have to be approved by voters in November 2016, would add this language to the state constitution: “To protect agriculture as a vital sector of Oklahoma’s economy, which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security and is the foundation and stabilizing force of Oklahoma’s economy, the rights of citizens and lawful residents of Oklahoma to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state. The Legislature shall pass no law which abridges the right of citizens and lawful residents of Oklahoma to employ agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices without a compelling state interest.”
Lawmakers concerned about the integrity of our democratic system should reject this measure. It’s no mystery that the agribusiness lobby wants to wall off its set of issues from any future legislative actions. This means no legislation to restrict extreme confinement of animals, no bans on mutilating farm animals, no restrictions on massive farms polluting ground water or dropping property values by creating a stench, no state limits on the drugs or antibiotics they can dose animals with. With an enterprise as fundamental as agriculture is to our society, do we want really want to enshrine current practices and never allow any future debate and discussion or legislative reforms or limits? Do we really want endless litigation over what types of “agricultural” practices would become protected constitutional rights—puppy mills, horse slaughter, even the raising of gamefowl for cockfighting? The degree of political capture on agriculture issues, at least in some states, is breathtaking.
In Oklahoma voters rejected an attempt in 2002 to prevent any future ballot measures on animal welfare issues – at the same time that voters were outlawing cockfighting. We’re confident they’d reject an attempt to handcuff future generations of lawmakers to debate and discuss ideas related to agriculture.
With their ag-gag measures, their right to farm, and their carving out of subject areas for voters to consider on ballot initiatives, it’s not hard to conclude that people who hurt animals want to prevent good people from weighing in on these matters. They’re bullies, and they are working against fundamental American values of free speech, democratic decision-making, and transparency. We need to stop them.