No need for ag-gag laws when there’s radical transparency

The debate is raging once again around animal welfare activists trespassing on private property to obtain footage of conditions in intensive livestock farming. The activists’ stated aim is to expose what they believe are unconscionable practices in the rearing of animals. It seems the debate recently was re-ignited by a column by a celebrity personal trainer.

A number of farmers have reacted with concerns about biosecurity on their farms and risks to their entire herd from disease and distress, as well as dismay at invasions of their privacy, and some have expressed support for so-called ‘ag-gag laws’ as introduced in the US. These laws make it illegal to film or photograph practices on farms without permission from the owner. There’s also been a mildly amusing open letter from ‘Bill the Farmer’ to the celebrity above asking her to live under constant video surveillance.

The hyperbole around factory farming and ag-gag laws includes allegations of activists as ‘terrorists’, factory farms as places of ‘horror’, and vegan ‘secret agendas’.

Calling people who trespass to film animals in cages ‘terrorists’ is rather puerile and misinformed. Call them trespassers – because they are. Call them activists – because they are. Hell, call them criminals – because for those found guilty of said alleged trespass, they are.

But ask a recently arrived asylum seeker from Afghanistan if they think animal welfare activists are terrorists and I suspect you might gain a little healthy perspective.

Inflammatory rhetoric aside, I’d like to consider what’s at stake in this debate. I’ll start by setting out some terms I’d like to use.

I usually steer away from the phrase ‘factory farming’ as I know it gets most intensive growers’ hackles up. To be clear, I don’t avoid it because I think it’s wrong (raising hundreds or thousands of animals in sheds in an industrial model is, in my view, rather accurately referred to as factory farming). But I want everyone in the discussion to be able to listen, so I try to avoid red flag phrases. I therefore use ‘intensive farming’ (and for the record, free-range farming is known as ‘extensive’).

Sow stall at a NSW piggery. Picture: Aussie Farms
Sow stall at a NSW piggery. Picture: Aussie Farms

I won’t refer to ‘animal rights activists’, instead I’ll use ‘animal welfare activists’, because the movement is a broad church, and not all people who believe it’s immoral to cage animals share the view that non-human animals have rights as such. I also know intensive farmers who consider themselves animal welfare activists. I’m a free-range pig farmer, and I’ve considered myself an animal welfare activist since I was 19, but a vegan abolitionist would say I am in fact a murderer. And yet I would say we’re both animal welfare activists.

I will use the label ‘ag-gag laws’, as I think they’re well understood now, and we don’t have a common alternative of which I’m aware. I appreciate that those who support these laws may take umbrage at the phrase, and ask that you bear with me.

As I see it, there are a number of stakeholders in this debate. There are the animals in intensive systems. There is the soil and water on and around the farms. There are the people who work on these farms, including those who own the farms. There are the families of the owners – I’m thinking particularly about the family farms where they live somewhere on the property. And then there is the local community, and the broader community of people (from vegan to omnivore) who have differing levels of concern about the ways animals are raised on farms, whether they eat meat or not.

Of course there are property rights, and trespass is illegal in Australia. So we already have a law that prohibits entering another’s property without permission to obtain footage of their practices.

I accept and share the concern about fear and feelings of violation at someone trespassing on your property with an intent that is contrary to your interest. Anyone who has had their home broken into knows the feelings of vulnerability that arise after a burglary or theft. If a vegan abolitionist entered our farm without our knowledge to film our pigs, I would be worried about their other possible motives, whether my children were out on the paddocks by themselves at the time, and  whether they took anything except images away with them.

But they have no need to do that on our farm, because we practice radical transparency. We have documented and outlined on national radio all of our farm management practices in great detail. And we invite the public in regularly – in fact people are welcome any day of the week that we’re here (which is most).

You’re welcome to photograph or film anything you see while you’re here, and when I find myself thinking, ‘oh, I hope they don’t take a photo of that mud patch where the pigs have turned the soil completely because we’ve been a bit slow in rotating them to another area,’

I reflect on how we really just need to move the pigs, not stop the visitor taking a photo.

What we need are not more laws that will stop people trying to expose what they believe is an injustice. We already have laws to protect your right to property and privacy.

Ag-gag laws must surely re-affirm the public’s concern that farmers have something to hide. Instead we should do as Australia Pork Limited (APL) did last year when footage was secretly filmed of an intensive piggery in NSW – APL got footage of the same piggery in daytime and stood by it.

I personally was still unhappy with what I saw, and so continue not to buy nor eat intensively-raised pork, but I applaud APL’s transparency to enable me to make an informed decision.

Bangalow Sweet Pork is another example of an intensive pig farm that has been prepared to be transparent about their farming practices. In 2009, they opened the doors for a Super Butcher video, and showed everything from their farrowing stalls to the group housing for growers. Again, seeing all those pigs confined in that fashion doesn’t sit well in my ethical code, but the information is there to empower the public to make ethical decisions.

The court of public opinion is real, and whether we like it or not, largely determines what is and is not acceptable. It’s a blunt jury, often led by a vocal minority, and yet when the minority exposes practices to the majority in a compelling way, the majority start to demand change.

Look at the growth of free-range eggs in Australia. Whatever issues there may be with the certification systems (and they are many), we didn’t have free-range eggs just 20 years ago unless you were a farmer or one of the rare suburbanites with chooks in your backyard. That movement has grown enormously, and we even have ‘caged eggs’ labeled as such.

How I would love to see ‘caged pork’ written on labels!

It is surely in nobody’s interest to criminalise those intent on exposing injustice, rather than welcoming greater scrutiny of industrial agriculture’s impact on animals?

The more farmers practice radical transparency, the more the public will trust us, and the more we will continue to improve our practices. And if we’re transparent about our practices, we can combat the invisibility and lower animal welfare standards of imported pork smallgoods in Australia (70% of the total).

Radical transparency is a powerful motivator to do your best, and I for one welcome it.


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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a PhD candidate, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and would-be cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community...

8 thoughts on “No need for ag-gag laws when there’s radical transparency”

  1. i have literally just delivered a presentation toYear 9, 10 and 11 agriculture students on animal welfare.
    My questions to them were-
    what makes us human? one answer was conscionable thought
    what is it to be human?
    who is responsible fora animal welfare?
    .. …. and showed them differences between pasture raised and intensively raised egg a d meat chooks, pigs and cattle.
    My take on animal welfare is the prevention of illness this knowing and providing natural conditions for health, wellbeing and productivity

  2. Thanks for this excellent article, Tammi. It clarifies in comprehensive detail and in a completely unemotional way, why ‘radical transparency’ is essential in the production of food involving animals (and birds). The farmers’ wish to preserve secrecy smacks of a guilty cover-up.

  3. Hi Tammi, Radical Transparency … Really there is nothing radical about transparency most farmers I have meet and asked or queried or taken photos etc have been brutally honest or radically transparent (please let’s drop ther verbiage). Being a producer I can tell you it is easy to get video footage and make it say what you want, the trouble with these tresspasser animal activists is they do not come and ask to see nor do they enter with an open mind. The tresspassing activists achieve very little for the pain they cause.

  4. Thanks for the comment, David. I agree that most transparency is not that radical in agriculture, and has been largely practised for a very long time. Our take on radical transparency is a slightly further stretch, I’m sure you would agree, given we have a total open farm policy, blog our activities (successes & failures, learnings…), and answer hard questions live on national radio (such as the castration discussion on Bush Tele last year).

    I think many farmers, including free-range pig farmers, are somewhat wary of such discussions because of the vegan abolitionist fringe and their litany of abuse, which is admittedly hard to take when you’re faced with it. And even omnivores sometimes respond very negatively when confronted with the realities of farm management practices, and some will say they don’t want to know – and I believe they are a huge part of the problem and why more and more practices have been able to become invisible.

    Having said all of that, I also agree that the videos & photos by some activists are used out of context, sometimes misrepresenting the realities of farming. I don’t think a special set of laws driven by a growing moral panic are the answer to this marginal problem in ag. I can’t think of a set of laws brought on by moral panic that has achieved anything positive for society – rather much the opposite. Just think of the Homeland Security Act in the US and loss of rights and privileges that ensued.

    I also note that the activities in question are almost exclusively perpetrated around intensive animal farming (and live export), and I go back to my earlier claim about the court of public opinion. Perhaps it’s time to reverse the worst animal welfare aspects of industrial agriculture rather than hiding behind new laws.

  5. Hi Tammi, What you say makes such good sense. Both sides (the animal welfare campaigners and the farmers) end up so polarised on this issue because it’s so emotive (radical if you like!) but we need to find a middle ground – if you stop all disclosure naturally people assume there’s something to hide but it’s not fair to abuse the rights of farmers to pursue any sort of cause whether well intentioned or not.

  6. For me, this is a really simple situation:
    every consumer should have the right to know how their food is produced…….
    either by corporate transparency, truth-in-labeling, personal visits, and god old (proper) public relations….as the term used to be known as…..not the modern spin shit.

    I figure that if there isn’t radical transparency, there is something to hide.
    Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, my grandfather used to tell me……

    The claim that animal activists pose a ‘bio-security’ risk in these intensive piggeries is a laugh…..more the case of they may contract swine flu / fever due to the intensely unhealthy conditions. Where did swine fever originate….?
    In China where poor bloody pigs are cooped up with poor bloody humans in filthy conditions so it’s no wonder enzootic diseases eventuate…..

    If there’s nothing to hide such as the ‘industry standard’ conditions for intensively raised pig meat, then let us in and perhaps certification by the community may be a salient measurement.

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