It’s remarkable to see so many companies – whether food retailers like McDonald’s and Costco, or major agricultural producers like Smithfield – recognizing that animal welfare matters, and making major adjustments in their business models to adapt to that reality. At the same time, many animal agriculture trade associations, with the notable exception of United Egg Producers, are digging in and calling upon their allies in state legislatures and in Congress to try to stifle reforms, advancing draconian measures that are antithetical to principles of transparency and free speech.
It speaks volumes that some of these groups are prepared to eviscerate democratic values to maintain the status quo, even as the corporate sector recognizes that the consumer base has spoken. As I’ve previously discussed, agribusiness lobbyists relentlessly attack the First Amendment via “ag-gag” laws, which in more than half a dozen states forbid private citizens from documenting the treatment of animals. As a prior strategy, many of these agricultural interests have tried to make the ballot initiative process unworkable in their states – not exactly a statement of confidence that they think that the people share their views about how animals are treated in conventional production systems. In Missouri – which already has an ag-gag law and a “right to farm” measure — operators of puppy mills and factory farms aren’t satisfied; they are leaning on lawmakers to deny citizens access to inspection records of these facilities (pretty ironic for the Show Me State). In Oklahoma now – in what may be the most astonishing and overreaching action we’ve yet seen in any state – they are even trying to make it illegal for “animal rights charitable organizations” to solicit money from people in the state if the organization conducts national campaigns or does any lobbying whatsoever. It looks like a Missouri lawmaker just introduced a clone of that bill in the last couple of days.
But one of their biggest maneuvers this year comes in the form of so-called “Right to Farm” amendments to state constitutions. These highly misleading measures, better dubbed “Right to Harm,” would consolidate even more power into the hands of the animal agriculture lobbies by barring elected officials and voters from passing commonsense rules regulating agriculture – for example, stopping extreme confinement, or restricting the use of antibiotics. These dangerous restrictions on our democratic legislative process are popping up throughout the country. They want to wall off an entire category of our economy from regulatory or legislative oversight.
With our allies and sympathetic lawmakers, we’ve blocked the trade associations’ “right to farm” measure in Indiana. But last year, lawmakers in Oklahoma put a right to farm measure on this year’s ballot, and we’re facing a fierce fight there between now and November. And we are facing a pitched fight in Nebraska, where State Senator Ernie Chambers, an extraordinary animal advocate, is leading the charge to block a restrictive measure from advancing.
The Nebraska bill – which is opposed by the Nebraska Farmers Union, a group comprised of family farmers – is an assault not just on democratic decision making, but also on local control. Voters, for example, wouldn’t be able to have a say in whether agribusiness should phase out forms of extreme confinement or to determine that massive amounts of animal waste cannot be dumped into streams or the backyards of neighbors. In fact, the bill’s sponsor, State Senator John Kuehn, has made it clear that the reason he introduced this amendment was the public scrutiny of animal cruelty exposed by the New York Times at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in his state.
The harm to animals would extend beyond chickens, pigs, and cows; breeding dogs are considered livestock under Nebraska law, and they’re inspected by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. This amendment could help puppy mill operators, who have a stronghold in Nebraska, carry on their inhumane practices without fear of stronger regulations. In the same vein, the Oklahoma “right to farm” measure is being pushed not just by factory farmers and puppy mills, but also by the state’s cockfighting community, which wants to undo a 2002 citizen initiative that outlawed their bloody spectacles.
Make no mistake. Despite the gains we’ve made, we are in a real battle over the treatment of animals, especially in the middle part of the country, where trade groups and their allies seem prepared to stop at nothing to thwart progress in agriculture. Don’t sit on the sidelines. We need people of conscience to speak up, especially if you are a resident of one of these states. It’s more than a matter of animal protection – it’s about your right to petition your government, and about an attempt by special interests to make the government an extension of their industry.