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Ag Rules, Meet the Farmarazzi

Originally published at Ecocentric. As children, my brothers and I enjoyed a level of freedom that might make a modern parent gasp, and sometimes we exercised that freedom in the kitchen, where we fed one another weird concoctions that tended toward the un-healthy: spoons full of sugar mixed with water to make our specialty, ‘shwater,’ whole bouillon cubes added to already salty ramen, you get the picture. The only time I ever refused to sample my brothers’ culinary creations was when asked to close my eyes during its preparation. I may have been a child, and one with a sense of humor, but I wasn’t an idiot. So, proposed legislation in three states – Iowa, Minnesota and Florida – that would criminalize the filming, photography or audio recording of farms (the general assumption seems to be that the bills are meant to protect CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations, also referred to as factory farms –  but could apply to any farm of any nature) raised a major red flag to me, and to others who follow and write about such issues. People you’d expect to raise a protest, likeHumane Society’s Wayne Pacelle and Animal Welfare Approved director Andrew Guenther have done so, but mainstream media, especially the New York Times, has also done a great job, with this pointed op-ed and Mark Bittman’s excellent “Who Protects the Animals?” (in which he coins the phrase “ag-gag”). But Slow Food USA took it one further this week, unveiling a clever “Farmarazzi” campaign, asking folks to sign a petition against the Ag Gag rules and exercise their rights to free speech by uploading photos of farms that are “ready for their close-ups” to the SFUSA Facebook page. Interestingly,the packaging of most CAFO products (meat, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese – the brands you can buy at any supermarket) bear images of the idyllic pastoral settings you might find perusing the Farmarazzi photos, but that is not what the vast majority of modern livestock production looks like. I should know – I brought my camera when I visited one, so the ‘ag-gag’ rules also troubled me because under them, I realized, a pair of videos — one shot at a CAFO in Iowa, the other, at a more sustainable, pasture-based hog farm — I produced last year could have landed me in hot water. In the post accompanying the videos, I joined the ranks of luminaries Michael Pollen and livestock expert Temple Grandin in calling for increased transparency in the meat industry. Just on principle, the secrecy surrounding meat production is enough to lead one to eye her hamburger suspiciously. The things we do know about industrial-scale meat production – that enormous quantities of animal waste inevitably cause environmental damage and public health problems, and that overuse (especially nontherapeutic use) of antibiotics leaves the public at risk of contracting drug-resistant strains like MRSA – are bad enough. What horrors could lie behind the shroud of secrecy? The simple trust I extended to my siblings is not unlike the average consumer’s trust in the modern food system. Though some may murmur about yucky practices in food production, for the most part, we eat up. We also place trust in lawmakers and government agencies. Surely the threat of punishment keeps the food producers honest. Right? Maaaaaybe. Unfortunately, the cozy relationship between the government (agencies and lawmakers both) and Big Meat is no big secret. In fact, as Grist’s Tom Laskaway points out, one of the authors of the Minnesota bill, Representative Rod Hamilton, is also the Communications Director for Christensen Family Farms, the nation’s third largest pork producer. And so, where the third party fails to protect, often, we rely on a fourth party to step in – investigative journalists or increasingly, nonprofit consumer (or in this case, sometimes, animal) advocates. Consider the Humane Society’s gruesome 2008 “downer cow” videos, which brought to light inhumane practices used to prod cows too sick to walk toward the kill room floor.  Outrage boiled over when it came out that the slaughterhouse in question was the second-largest supplier to the nation’s School Lunch Program and in the end, the facility was shut down and the then-fresh Obama USDA closed the downer-cow loophole. Although their work may be hard to look at, videographers and other documentarians – and those who would distribute their work – perform an important service to society, one that helps keep us safe, and legislation aimed toward vilifying their efforts can only be perceived as thinly veiled attempts to hide the truth by misdirecting public scrutiny. The blame for inhumane and dirty practices lie with the producers who allow them to occur and the lawmakers and government agencies who give them pass after pass for behavior that sickens consumers, both literally and figuratively. The old adage that legislation and sausage-making are two processes most people would rather not observe close-up may sometimes hold true, but sometimes, we have to hold our noses and take a good hard look at what’s going on. For the record, the eight-year old girl who refused to taste her brothers’ secret concoctions probably wouldn’t have wanted to peer into a CAFO, but she wouldn’t have trusted someone who refused to let her look.
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