Is presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's (R-MN) attack on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) settlement with African American farmers racist? Bachmann is coming under increasing fire for characterizing a settlement to black farmers who were discriminated against as mass “fraud.” For years, black farmers alleged that they were being denied USDA farm loans or that they were forced to wait longer for loan approval than other non-minority farmers. Some contended that they endured foreclosure and financial ruin as a direct result. Following a class action lawsuit that was initiated back in 1997 – the so-called Pigford Cases – a U.S. Court has established that between 1983 and 1997 the USDA discriminated against black farmers who applied for farm loans and other assistance on the basis of their race, and that the USDA also failed subsequently to investigate or properly respond to complaints. Following this unequivocal ruling you would think that all efforts would now turn to addressing this injustice as swiftly as possible for the thousands of individuals and families who were wronged.
On most Friday nights during football season you’ll find me watching 22 of the finest young local athletes play ball. Before each game, I stand as the crowd proudly sings the National Anthem, and we honor those who fought – and still fight – to keep this great nation “the land of the brave and the home of the free.”
What a shock then to discover that there are elements within this great nation who want to behave as if we were under some kind of despotic regime. I am old enough to remember that at the height of the Cold War, you would occasionally hear about tourists traveling abroad who were arrested and deported for allegedly spying, when their only crime was to inadvertently take photographs of government buildings or other supposedly strategic sites.
I thought that this kind of extreme behavior was fortunately now limited to just a few of the more unsavory countries of the world. But did you know that a number of U.S. states have introduced a draconian law that effectively bans photography at certain designated sites? And that two other states are apparently proposing to introduce it? You might wonder what state secret or national asset these new laws are designed to protect, or which high-powered individuals will be shielded from prying eyes?
The truth is that this legislation is nothing more than a prohibition of unapproved photography of farms. Yes, believe it or not, farms! Big Ag is protecting its interests again, stealthily promoting legislation that effectively makes it illegal to take unapproved photographs of industrial farm animal production. This is the same Big Ag which has lied to us all for years–trying to persuade us that GM is safe, that pesticides are not polluting our watercourses, that feedlots do not add to greenhouse gas, and that all industrial farm animal production is both safe and humane.
What on earth are these guys trying to hide? What is so horrific that Big Ag is willing to use the power of the law to prevent the people who are buying and eating meat and dairy products from seeing what goes on at these farms? I can almost understand authoritarian regimes that refuse to allow people to photograph military installations or nuclear facilities. But are Big Ag and its paid-off politicians really saying that their farms have the same need for secrecy to justify this kind of legislation?
Well, we already know some of the things they are trying to hide – let’s not forget those horrific videos of slaughter operators dragging animals unfit for food to the kill floor, or those truly terrible pictures of baby veal calves being kicked and beaten on their way to slaughter. The truth is that our food industry is now controlled by a handful of powerful corporations that are only too willing to put profit ahead of our health, the livelihood of American farmers and workers, and our environment. They don’t want you to know what goes on behind their closed doors, because the chances are that if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch the food – let alone put it in your mouth.
I am extremely proud to be the program director of Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). Our standards have been rated “most stringent” by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and I know firsthand that our farmers welcome visitors. They have no objection to photographs being taken at their farms, because they have nothing to hide. They are proud of their farms and of what they do.
And it’s not just AWA farmers. I know many farmers who might not meet the AWA requirements for pasture-based production, but who are still proud of what they do and also want people to know how they manage their animals–if only so that the public can have an informed choice about the meat, egg and dairy products they buy – and how important farming is to this nation.
In response to criticism over welfare abuses at its facilities, Smithfield – the world’s largest pork processor – recently released a set of PR videos showing the different stages of pig production on its indoor confinement farms. I’m not normally a fan of Smithfield but I do commend them for their honesty in showing pigs in barren slatted pens, piglets being tail docked, and sows confined to farrowing crates. However, this isn’t the full answer to achieving openness in Big Ag. Smithfield has not shied away from showing the crates they use and mutilations they carry out on the millions of animals they rear each year, but they have certainly handpicked the farms used in these videos. Believe me when I tell you that the level of farm cleanliness seen on those videos is far higher than you’d normally see, while the bites, sores and other injuries on the animals are far lower than normal. If the legislation that makes it a felony to photograph such farms becomes more widespread, we will all be left wondering whether the images we are presented with by Big Ag actually represent the reality of the lives of those animals. I know one thing for sure: anyone who tells you that this legislation will help to improve animal welfare or protect family farms is either a liar or a fool.
No AWA farmer is going to press charges if you photograph what they are doing, and none of us support this dictatorial approach to information control. In this great nation of ours, I have the right to say what I want; I and all other Americans should also have the right to know how the food we eat is raised and produced. I don’t think that is too much to ask – do you?