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Will Potter

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What Is Big Ag Trying to Hide?

Posted: 04/22/11 03:58 PM ET

Undercover investigations by the Humane Society, Mercy for Animals and other groups have exposed systemic animal cruelty at factory farms. The video footage has led to criminal convictions in Iowa, voter referendums in Florida, and consumer outrage at the most egregious animal welfare abuses.

Rather than put an end to these practices, though, corporations and agriculture industry groups have hit back with another plan: criminalize anyone who exposes their wrongdoing.

Iowa, Florida and Minnesota are all considering bills that specifically target anyone who documents the mistreatment of animals. In Minnesota, for instance, the bill criminalizes the recording, or mere possession, of an "image or sound" of animal suffering in a sweeping list of "animal facilities" and "crop facilities."

Behind the scenes, the supporters of these bills have financial interests in seeing them become law. The Iowa Poultry Association helped draft the Iowa bill, and Iowa State Representative Annette Sweeney, one of its proponents, is the former executive director of the Iowa Angus Association. Simpson Farms, Florida's second biggest egg producer, helped draft the bill in that state. And Minnesota's bill is co-sponsored by Representative Rod Hamilton -- past president and current member of the Minnesota Pork Producers.

Whether these special interests like it or not, distributing video and audio footage of factory farms, animal experimentation labs, and other facilities is protected by the First Amendment. If any investigators have trespassed or destroyed property, there are already laws on the books to charge them. To the proponents of these bills, though, these videos are not free speech, nor are they petty crime. As Florida state senator Jim Norman has said of undercover investigators: "It's almost like terrorism."

Sound outrageous? It's not a gaffe. This is all part of an on-going campaign by corporations, and the politicians who represent them, to demonize their opposition as "eco-terrorists." In my book Green Is the New Red, I document the rise of this rhetoric, beginning in the early 1980s and culminating, in recent years, with the FBI's labeling of the animal rights and environmental movements as the "number one domestic terrorism threat."

For more than two decades, corporations have lobbied for designer laws to criminalize animal advocates and environmentalists. About 39 states have laws that single out these activists for disproportionately harsh sentences or financial penalties.

The language in the Iowa, Florida, and Minnesota bills is quite similar to provisions in model "eco-terrorism" legislation created by a corporate front group. The American Legislative Exchange Council is a non-profit funded by corporations, who contribute tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for having a say in drafting model bills. The bills are then introduced by state lawmakers across the country. ALEC's model bill is so broad that it includes undercover investigations, photography, videotaping and non-violent civil disobedience as "eco-terrorism."

So why is all this happening? It is not, as some industry groups have claimed, that investigators may pose a threat to the animals. Nor is it the outlandish claim that the Humane Society is merely documenting cruelty as part of a fundraising racket. Corporations want to label these undercover investigations as "eco-terrorism," and hit investigators with disproportionate criminal charges and sentences, for one simple reason: they are effective.

Paul McCartney has often said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." That may be true, but not everyone lives near these facilities. Undercover investigators shed light on practices that most Americans would not otherwise witness.

This transparency can prompt individuals to change their diets, as McCartney says, and it can also lead to industry-wide reforms that benefit workers and consumers, along with the animals -- reforms that corporations resist because they cut into profits. A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair documented his experiences working at a meatpacking plant. His descriptions led to an overhaul of the unregulated industry. If Sinclair were around today, I think the muckraker would be doing the same thing as these investigators: uploading videos to YouTube.

Because while books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer have become mainstream, and Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres regularly talk about veganism on their shows, there is still no substitute, there is still nothing more powerful, than photographs and videos of what happens in these places.

For industries dependent on secrecy and ignorance, that is indeed a threat.

Will Potter is the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege, published this month by City Lights Books