If Iowa is considered the belly of the beast of industrial agriculture, then the Iowa state capitol is the part of the animal that drains the swamp. After all, Iowa is the place where Iowa legislators have made it possible to produce 11.3 hogs per person annually and created some of the most polluted rivers and streams contributing to the Dead Zone due to continued poor legislation and failed regulatory oversight.
Last year Iowa’s modern agricultural practices were made famous by legendary food safety violator Jack DeCoster, who is still in business after a 500-million egg recall due to salmonella that sickened more than 1,500 people in 23 states. This year Iowa’s state legislators are about to pass a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to take a photo of his “farms” or any other farm or field in Iowa. Even though some of the worst animal welfare abuses in U.S. history have taken place under the roofs of Jack DeCoster’s hundreds of industrial animal confinements, Iowa lawmakers are willing to offer immunity to offenders like him and penalize those who blow the whistle on those who would abuse animal livestock, i.e., our food.
Incredibly, House File 589, which I call “The Jack DeCoster Animal Abuser Protection Act of 2011,” passed the Iowa House on March 17 by a vote of 66 to 27, despite the fact that 65 percent of Iowans oppose the bill. Unfortunately for consumers across the country, versions of this bill have been popping up in states like Minnesota and Florida, where both bill recently failed to pass.
While most Americans have been caught off guard by agribusiness’s boldness, those of us in Iowa know this is how the game is played. No matter how big the violation or how bad the sin, agribusiness always finds a way to influence elected officials into papering over the most egregious abuses under the guise of economic development, stating the Big Lie that it’s “good for business.”
However, this time they’re wrong. And in a way that could give Iowa farmers and elected officials a black eye that no amount of political makeup can hide for the first in the nation caucus state.
The bill is so fringe and outrageous that famed Republican strategist and former President Bush adviser Mary Matalin recently wrote to Iowa House Republican leadership, stating, “If House File 589 succeeds, it may well single Iowa out as the state with something to hide.”
While some farmers might not like the idea of photos of their farms or undercover videos being taken, this heavy handed attempt to shelter the worst abusers only exposes the truth of industrial livestock production. Regretfully, for the vast majority of Iowa’s farmers, who have nothing to hide, the passage of this bill could make agricultural products coming out of Iowa seem unsafe, unsanitary and inhumane.
If allowed to pass by Iowa Senate Democrats, HF 589 will make it much easier for groups to mislead America’s consumers about livestock production by convincing them that the terrible abuses that happened on a farm in Texas, where dairy calves had their heads smashed with hammers and pickaxes, are not the exception but the rule. In fact, if these Ag Gag bills pass, those battered calves will become the new face of animal agriculture.
Imaginary Problem, Thuggish Solution
HF 589 is so Orwellian that it invents a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Sure, there are a number of videos on the Internet that show horrendous abuse at meat slaughtering plants and livestock facilities. But in reality the videos are rather rare events and most people are so shocked by the abuse that they see they tend to go numb and move onto the next Internet distraction.
However, passing poorly conceived bills that limit Americans’ freedoms and place an iron curtain between farmers and consumers is certain to backfire, only drawing more attention to agricultural practices that occur in rural America on otherwise sleepy, poorly traveled roads.
While initially sponsored by a Republican in the Iowa House, Senate Democrat Tom Reilly has taken the charge in trying to get the bill passed by writing amendments in the desperate hope to take some of the totalitarian stink off of this Ag Gag bill.
For some reason, Reilly seems to think that people taking photos of farms or undercover videos will destroy Iowa’s economy and turn people into instant vegans. In a recent interview with the Sioux City Journal, Reilly said, “They want to hurt an important part of our economy… These people don’t want us to have eggs; they don’t want people to eat meat.”
Is this how bad the thinking of our political leaders has gotten? Rather than writing laws that further protect animals from these horrific abuses, state elected officials are now wasting taxpayer money figuring out how they can get between a vegan and a corporations’ bottom line.
And because a number of undercover videos have been taken by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals, which ends its videos with the line: “Boycott animal abuse. Choose Vegan,” Reilly and other gullible lawmakers across the country are falling for the new agribusiness lie that these people are going to “end animal agriculture.”
In truth the only thing that will end family farmer involvement in animal agriculture is our government’s absolute failure to protect family farmers from the economic abuses of the vertically integrated, massively consolidated meat industry that keeps tightening the financial screws on farmers, making it harder, if not impossible for them to stay in business.
Ironically, while legislators in Minnesota, Florida and Iowa have wasted many an hour bickering over the phantom menace of videotaping vegans, the Obama administration has failed to act on important Department of Justice investigations into monopoly abuses in agriculture and to implement vital and fair livestock marketing protections for independent producers known as GIPSA.
These are the greater injustices that legislators could easily accomplish to truly protect America’s farmers. In reality, when the dust finally settles over the fight for rural America and our food supply, these will be the critical failures that future historians will point to for decimating America’s farmers, not vegans with video cameras.
If the few farmers that remain in livestock production in Iowa think it’s a bad thing for an undercover activist to videotape their farm, wait until PETA and the Humane Society and other “radical” groups start a boycott of Iowa agricultural products because the state knowingly promotes the cover up of animal welfare abuses.
As Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment figures who influenced America’s founding fathers, coolly observed more than two centuries ago: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
And regretfully, this is where Iowa’s elected officials stand today: Ready to commit a grave offense against our constitution and democratic rights based on the advice of greedy fools who would aid and abet factory farms where some are bashing the brains out of animals with pickaxes, rather than protecting those animals from harm and abuse. In doing so, they not only endanger the animals, but also Iowa’s famers, their economic livelihoods and the reputation and safety of all food production in the state of Iowa.
A version of this article originally appeared on Huffington Post