Animal Welfare Approved

Behind the Barn Door

Photographer on FarmOn 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?

4 thoughts on “Behind the Barn Door

  1. Come see us & snap away! So proud to be Animal Welfare Approved Certified!

  2. Peter says:

    I cannot believe that the proponents of this law are attempting to justify its introduction by claiming that it will somehow benefit ‘animal welfare.’ A disgraceful abuse of power. People have the right to know how their food is being produced, just as they should have the right to know if their food contains GM ingredients.

  3. Mitchell Alcala says:

    To start off this comment let me give you a little background on myself. I am a master’s student studying agricultural communications at Oklahoma State University. I was raised on a 400-acre farm in southwest Missouri, where we raised grass fed beef as well as grain fed beef, and also raised chicken and swine for are own personal consumption. I also consider myself a professional photographer, having been published in in publications such as The New York Times, The Oklahoman and Country Women.
    Now that I’ve covered that I have to say that these laws presented by Florida and Iowa are completely nonsense, and in my personal opinion send the wrong message that agriculture needs to be sending. It also completely undermines freedom of speech, which not only protects speech but also images and drawings.
    I’m not saying I know what the congressmen in these states are really doing this for, but I have a thought upon it. There are multiple instances were radical groups have “went undercover” or just broke into a farm to film and photograph that in which they believe is wrong. These individuals have no care for the law or the individuals for which they’re attacking. This is where all of the video that anti-agriculturalists like to use to tug at the publics heart strings.
    I’ve always wondered how these individuals get into farms that they attack, and what farms there actually on. Sometimes I wonder if the videos aren’t completely fabricated to make agriculture look that much worse. The one thing you never hear though is a farm or an agriculturalist pressing charges against these individuals, If I had go out on a limb, I believe that is what these laws are trying to prevent, but there are other options agriculture can do before taking away rights from the public.
    I respect that you say that AWA farmers wouldn’t mind letting individuals take pictures on their farm, but can you honestly say they would be happy for anyone to just walk onto their property poking around taking pictures without asking? Opening gates, walking into the bar and who knows what? That is what is happening with large farms, and I can see why the farmers are not a big fans of people taking photographs.
    Agriculture and farmers should be more open, allowing individuals to come and see how their food is being raised. If we all had glass barns, then their wouldn’t be bills like this, but how can anyone expect agriculturalists to just start opening their door to anyone and everyone? How many companies and businesses that aren’t agriculture just open their doors for anyone to come in and poke around? Why should we agriculturalists be expected to do this, when it could result in biohazard problems?
    As you can tell, I don’t believe agriculture should be viewed through a glass barn, but I do agree that large agricultural farms do need to let more people in from time to time. I also believe that more inspectors should be hired, to keep an eye on the welfare of animals, but that presents yet more problems because who will pay the inspectors?
    With 98% of Americans eating meat, getting rid of animal agriculture is something that will not happen any time in the near future. Also, with the price of food falling dramatically in the last 40 years, and a rising population, people aren’t to keen on spending their hard earned money on food. The majority of the population wants their food cheap, flavorful and now. Once the population is willing to pay more money for free-range animals, the supply for it will go up.
    It is always thrown out that large farms are only doing it for the money, and that it’s no longer about the animals, but instead it’s all about the production line and income. Now, I grew up on a small farm and don’t know what’s going through the head of the large scale farmer, but one thing I have learned is you don’t get into farming for the money, because it takes a lot money to make money. Once a farmer starts making money, they want to continue making money, and so they will do what ever the market wants them to do, so once the consumer demands grass fed over grain fed that is what they will start to do.
    I believe that the agriculturalist has to change as well as the consumer has to change to make everyone happy, but I do not believe that making it illegal draw a picture of a farm, or take a roadside picture of a farm is going to change anything for either side of the view point.
    Once agriculture becomes more open, is it really going to change the way consumers eat? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know it is something that is definitely worth a try. I also believe that instead of making it illegal to take a photograph, agriculturalists should answer the questions asked to them. As a photographer the ideas of these laws scare me, because what’s to come and as a agriculturalist I saddens me to believe that some think this is the answer to a problem.


  4. richard says:

    This is really eye-opening, some films to watch on the subject include “Food Inc” and one of my favorites, “Ingredients”. Both available on Netflix last time I checked. Thankfully Connecticut seems to be going in the right direction.

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