JL Schatz

There’s a war going on. It’s a war against consumer knowledge, against immigrants, a war against the impoverished and a war against animals. This war is being waged through Ag Gag laws that silence information about how food is produced in the United States. These laws criminalize undercover investigations of factory farms. They have already been passed in a handful of states and are currently up for vote in several others. Ag Gag laws make releasing the footage that has become infamous in films like Meet Your Meat and Meat Video illegal, while doing nothing to stop the practices these videos document. The problem is that these laws destroy one of the most effective tools to fight injustice. These videos are so effective in fact that the Animal Agriculture Alliance, which represents the farming industry, claims that Ag Gag laws are “farm protection legislation [because] …undercover videos are harmful to the farm owners… [and] damage their reputations.” The most shocking thing is that “much of what these investigators are documenting are actually standard industry practices,” which sicken consumers to their stomachs when they digest the truth.

These laws not only hide the abuse animals endure, but they also make the huge tolls agricultural workers face invisible. In the United States, “the rate of illness and injuries for slaughterhouse workers was over twice as high as the national average, and the rate of illnesses alone was over ten times the national average. And these are ultra-conservative estimates, as the industry has been shown massively to underreport injuries in order to avoid fines. One of the reasons that slaughterhouse companies get away with such appalling working conditions is that the workforce is often made up of illegal immigrants…Equally, illegal tactics are used to prevent unions forming that would push for safer working conditions.” Beyond preventing undercover videos, Ag Gag laws also “criminalize whistleblowing" on factory farms… [for] exposing animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental problems on industrial farms.” The result is that people are unable to realize factory farms over the past decade have quietly transformed intosweatshops and concentration camps. This is not an exaggeration. It is a fact. Not only are the disposable bodies of immigrants required to labor in deadly conditions, but they are forced to do so for the sole purpose of painfully slaughtering the even more disposable bodies of non-human animals while desensitizing themselves to the violence they’re coerced to participate in. It is worth remembering that it was the very cattle cars and architects of slaughterhouses that gave rise to the concentration camps of World War II. (1) 

What’s worse is how this war on information seeks to end the debate on animal agriculture before allowing it to take place by prohibiting consumers to intelligibly know what goes into the production of their food. Without whistleblowing and undercover videos people would be left ignorantly believing in the fiction of Old McDonald. This is, in fact, agribusiness’ exact strategy. As animal rights activist Marjorie Spiegel notes in The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, “secrecy serves to conceal the details of the horror from all but those who must participate in it to keep the cogs of the machinery running smoothly. In the case of blacks…segregation served to keep those outside the system blind to almost everything that institutionalized inequality entailed. The same technique was used in Nazi Germany. Long before the mass killing of Jews actually began, a succession of restrictive laws were enacted, which served to segregate Jews away from the rest of the German population, in both the physical and social sense… Secrecy and distancing are also used to protect the very profitable institutionalized cruelty to animals as it exists today.” 

Rallying against Ag Gag laws is an essential starting point to confront any number of intersecting oppressions. It both reminds us that what’s on our plates can’t be divorced from our politics and simultaneously begs us to put our activism where our mouths are. As factory farms have become globalized, and small farmers are being pushed off their land, the gluttony of agribusiness has been able to reap the rewards while immigrants and families are “swindled into becoming economic serfs for the likes of Tyson.” Meanwhile, the ignorant consumer is left happy with their pound of flesh without ever realizing the true cost of what they’re paying for. As long as consumers in the United States are able to ignore their consumption habits they will be left unaware of the global injustice factory farmsperpetuate. Once aware, however, consumers could come to terms with the fact, argues Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, that “if Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by only 10 percent for one year, it would free at least twelve million tons of grain for human consumption — or enough to feed sixty million people...Indeed, the food wasted by animal production in the affluent nations would be sufficient, if properly distributed, to end both hunger and malnutrition throughout the world.” Without the proper information about what we eat, challenges to economic inequality throughout the world will be impossible.

Ag Gag laws are a war. They are about more than animal rights. As feminist-vegetarian theorist Carol Adams reminds us in The Sexual Politics of Meat, “It is not this bloodshed, or that bloodshed, that must cease, but all needless bloodshed — all wanton infliction of pain or death upon our fellow-beings...Wars will never cease while men [sic] still kill other animals for food, since to turn any living creature into a roast, a steak, a chop, or any other form of ‘meat’ takes the same kind of violence, the same kind of bloodshed and the same kind of mental processes required to change a living man [sic] into a dead soldier.” We cannot afford to stay silent on this issue because our silence will ensure that another era of activists will never be born because the crucial information that would inspire intersectional coalitions simply wouldn’t exist. It is now that activists from a variety of starting points must come together and challenge these regressive laws before it’s too late.

There are already a number of campaigns that have started to fight back. There’s an official federal petition on the White House’s website that you can sign. There are also ones that target state legislators that are currently considering passing Ag Gag laws. Signing these initiatives and spreading the word through social media networks about them is a great way to start promoting awareness. Only through awareness will people be inspired to produce change. We can no longer passively wait as this war rages on behind closed doors. If you haven’t yet, watch the videos, read the whistleblower testimony, and share the information with others before it vanishes into smoke, choking out the possibility of justice for humans and non-humans alike.

(1) For more see Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust.

JL Schatz is a Professor of English and Feminist Evolutionary Studies at Binghamton University where he also serves as the Director of the Speech and Debate Team, which was ranked 1st in the nation in 2008. He has published essays on technology and apocalypse, environmental securitization, and the influence of science-fiction on reality.