New Legislation: Farmer Privacy Versus Public Knowlege About Food Sources

By Taylor Reid

A couple of days ago I published a guest post by Chris Peterson that mentioned a proposed Bill in Florida banning video or photographs of farming activities without consent. According to the DesMoines Register, the Iowa Legislature is considering passage of a similar law banning exposure of the “mistreatment of animals on the state’s farms and livestock processing facilities”. I’m a strong advocate for farmers rights to privacy. But I’m also an advocate of the public’s right to know about the sources of their food. This issue stretches back historically to the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in 1906. Anyone who has read this book would probably agree that it was an important piece of journalism that improved both public health and safety and workers rights by exposing such egregious practices taking place in the meatpacking at that time that new legislation was enacted. It was also a predecessor to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which exposed the environmental impacts of the chemical DDT and also inspired legislative action. While most people agree that these works and laws were socially beneficial, there are some who question the motives and means used in both.

And while the proposed legislation wouldn’t have prevented either of these works from being published, it would apply to movies like Food Inc and a host of other recent films and news reports which, one might reasonably argue are modern equivalents to these seminal books since print media has largely been replaced by visual forms of journalism.

To me, the main issue seems to be one of freedom of the press versus farmer privacy. I sympathize with many conscientious family farmers who feel they have been unjustly demonized by modern media and unfairly lumped together with those guilty of questionable animal farming practices. But should corporations (agricultural or otherwise) really have anything to fear from public scrutiny if they are not doing anything wrong? And is the public debate about our modern food system that movies like Farm Inc. and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma have facilitated is really unhealthy? I believe that people should be aware of where their food comes from, and should be able to make informed choices about what to eat based on that knowledge. These are issues which affect all of us. And while I am decidedly pro-farmer and am not a vegetarian, I respect individual food choices, and like to know where my own food comes from, who grows it, and how. Another important issue here is the power of large corporations and interest groups to influence the legislative process. The fact that similar legislation has been introduced in two states almost simultaneously is not likely coincidental. There is currently a battle being waged between on the legislative front between powerful animal rights organizations on the one hand, and powerful animal agriculture organizations on the other. And neither of these groups are representative of either the average farmer or the average citizen. I don’t know what the solution is, but am interested in hearing what other people think about this.

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