Cows visiting slaughterhouse videoSo-called “ag gag” laws hit the news again this week as a federal judge struck down the principle behind an Idaho law that aimed to protect farmers from undercover investigations by activists. The laws have been hotly debated over the past few years, which I’ve followed on several occasions.

  • When I lived in Tennessee, the state’s legislature worked to pass an Animal Cruelty Prevention Act, which was opposed infamously by singer Carrie Underwood and later vetoed by Governor Haslam. The bill’s language was brief and vague. The bill required evidence of livestock abuse be turned over to law enforcement within 48 hours.
  • On CNN, I wrote about how the pressure of animal activists affects the willingness of livestock operations to open their gates, and how these laws allow some protection for farmers and ranchers against activists intending to do harm or defamation.
  • As I’ve highlighted on several occasions, agriculture provides many opportunities for communities to learn about the work farmers and ranchers do on a regular basis. These opportunities for transparency in food continue to build and increase.

This time last summer, I had the opportunity to visit with an AP reporter after several of these “ag gag” bills and laws were being challenged in states like Utah and Idaho. Over time, the conversation around these bills has evolved, as has my opinion. As I shared with the reporter, in the court of public opinion, ag gag laws aimed at providing farmers and ranchers legal protection against activists who obtain employment and undercover footage of livestock abuse with the intention of harm and defamation, are a lost cause.

There are more proactive manners in which animal agriculture should address the issue of transparency and consumer concern about modern agriculture production methods. As I wrote, we need to “address the problems of isolated abuse ourselves by establishing and maintaining standards, defining what is animal abuse/neglect/cruelty and holding those accountable who violate those standards.” This has yet to happen on a large-scale across livestock agriculture. However, due to a more proactive leadership and after being targeted by activists, the dairy industry likely leads the way on implementing self-governance in the areas of promoting producer-accountability and creating campaigns to improve public awareness. Read more in my previous post.

This week’s ruling on the legality of ag gag laws took aim at the principle behind an Idaho law after a federal judge ruled against it, in a case led by Animal Legal Defense Fund. The ruling has received a decent amount of press across the country as reporters question how this may impact laws in other states as well as the movement for introduction of similar bills.

As NPR reports, similar laws exist in Montana, Utah, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and recently North Carolina, and much of the conversation focuses on outlawing recording in industrial farms, not the aimed protection of farming and ranching families against activists. “Although the State may not agree with the message certain groups seek to convey about Idaho’s agricultural production facilities, such as releasing secretly recorded videos of animal abuse to the Internet and calling for boycotts, it cannot deny such groups equal protection of the laws in their exercise of their right to free speech…” The animal rights activist groups are still winning the conversation in the media, and in turn in perceived public opinion. Listen to the NPR report here.

POLITICO is among media outlets questioning if this ruling leads to the end of ag gag, calling it “definitely a blow against that movement.” In today’s Morning Agriculture report, an interview with John Dillard, an attorney with OFW Law, is shared.

“The ruling “did not reject just certain portions of Idaho’s law, it objected to the principle of Idaho’s law,” Dillard said, adding that other courts considering challenges to similar laws, including the one in Utah, will likely take the ruling into account.

…But Farms Do Have Options: While the ruling is a blow to supporters of such laws, “employers are not defenseless,” Dillard said. He recommends livestock facilities have a well-run operation that doesn’t provide fodder for investigations, screen employees, have employment contracts that forbid being there under false pretenses and ban photographs inside the facility. “It’s not like farm operations are defenseless, but this is definitely a victory for the animal rights groups.””

Where does agriculture go from here? I’m not certain. One thing for sure, we must step up efforts to address concerns about transparency, further improve outreach efforts to answer questions about our protection methods, and find better ways to communicate the work we’re doing to ensure proper treatment of livestock in our care.