If Iowa is considered the belly of the beast of industrial agriculture, then the Iowa state capitol is the part of the animal that drains the swamp. After all, Iowa is the place where Iowa legislators have made it possible to produce 11.3 hogs per person annually and created some of the most polluted rivers and streams contributing to the Dead Zone in the nation due to continued poor legislation and failed regulatory oversight.
Last year Iowa's modern agricultural practices were made famous by legendary food safety violator Jack DeCoster, who is still in business after a 500-million egg recall due to salmonella last year that sickened more than 1,500 people in 23 states. This year Iowa's state legislators are about to pass a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to take a photo of his "farms" or any other farms and fields in Iowa. Even though some of the worst animal welfare abuses in U.S. history have taken place under the roofs of Jack DeCoster's hundreds of industrial animal confinements, (in 2010 the state of Maine he was fined more than $130,000 for egregious animal cruelty violations that took place at DeCoster Egg Farm), Iowa lawmakers are willing to offer immunity to offenders like him from being recorded and penalize those that would blow the whistle on those who abuse animal livestock i.e. our food.
Incredibly, House File 589, which I call, "The Jack DeCoster Animal Abuser Protection Act of 2011", passed the Iowa House on March 17th by a vote of 66 to 27, despite the fact that 65% of Iowans oppose the bill. Unfortunately for consumers across the country versions of this bill have been popping up in states like Minnesota and Florida, where both bills recently failed to pass.
While most Americans have been caught off guard by agribusiness's boldness, those of us in Iowa know this is how the game is played. No matter how big the violation or how bad the sin, agribusiness always finds a way to influence elected officials into papering over the most egregious abuses under the guise of economic development, stating the Big Lie that it's "good for business".
However, this time they're wrong. And in a way that could give Iowa farmers and elected officials a black eye that no amount of political makeup can hide for the first in the nation caucus state, where Republican Presidential candidates are now hoping to distinguish themselves.
The bill is so fringe and outrageous that famed Republican strategist and former President Bush adviser Mary Matalin recently wrote to Iowa House Republican leadership, stating:
"If House File 589 succeeds, it may well single Iowa out as the state with something to hide."
What Don't Iowa's Politicians and their Agribusiness Donors Want You to See?
While some farmers might not like the idea of photos of their farms or undercover videos being taken, this heavy handed attempt to shelter the worst abusers only exposes the truth of industrial livestock production to millions of Americans who would have blissfully gobbled up chicken nuggets and pork chops not knowing or caring about the conditions in which those animals were raised. Now it looks like they have reason to be concerned.
The problem is, the Ag Gag bills, as they've become known, are about to become as popular as the Paul Ryan Medicare proposal.
For Democrats who control the Iowa Senate, where this bill must pass through to be attached to the Iowa budget, there are some that have promised to make sure this vote is remembered in the next election. It should be noted that Iowa voters recently retired Democrat governor Chet Culver in 2010 for his inability to stand up to agribusiness and fight for core democratic values.
Regretfully, for the vast majority of Iowa's farmers, who have nothing to hide, the passage of this bill could make agricultural products coming out of Iowa to be considered unsafe, unsanitary and inhumane. After all, if your production methods are so bad that you can't allow a photograph to be taken, who's going to want to eat the stuff?
If allowed to pass by Iowa Senate Democrats, HF 589 will make it much easier for groups to mislead America's consumers about livestock production by convincing them that the terrible abuses that happened on a farm in Texas, where dairy calves had their heads smashed with hammers and pickaxes are not the exception, but the rule. In fact, if these Ag Gag bills pass, those battered calves will become the new face of animal agriculture. After all, who knows what lurks behind closed doors?
Imaginary Problem, Thuggish Solution
HF 589 is so Orwellian and over the top that it invents a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. Sure, there are a number of videos on the Internet that show horrendous abuse at meat slaughtering plants and livestock production facilities, but it's not like hundreds of thousands of people are moving to Iowa or other ag states to film these undercover videos. In fact, the videos are rather rare events and most people are so shocked by the abuse that they see they tend to go numb and move on to the next Internet distraction. Most who do view these shocking videos keep eating meat on a daily basis because eating habits, as the food industry is well aware of, are notoriously hard to break.
However, passing poorly conceived bills that limit Americans' freedoms and place an iron curtain between farmers and consumers is certain to backfire, only drawing more attention to agricultural practices that occur in rural American on otherwise sleepy, poorly traveled roads.
While initially sponsored by a Republican in the Iowa House, over in the Senate Oskaloosa Democrat Tom Reilly has taken the charge in trying to get the bill passed by writing amendments in the desperate hope to take some of the totalitarian stink off of this Ag Gag bill.
For some reason, Reilly seems to thinks that people taking photos of farms or undercover videos will destroy Iowa's economy and turn people into instant vegans. In a recent interview with the Sioux City Journal, Reilly stated:
"They want to hurt an important part of our economy," said Sen. Tom Reilly, D-Oskaloosa. "These people don't want us to have eggs; they don't want people to eat meat."
It's hard to imagine someone skilled enough to get elected to represent Iowa's citizens in a legislative body actually dumb enough to believe this, but agribusiness has their talking points down cold: Videos bad, people will become vegans, Iowa will go broke.
Is this how bad the thinking of our political leaders has gotten? Rather than writing laws that further protect animals from these horrific abuses, Iowa's (and other state's) elected officials are wasting taxpayer's time and money figuring out how they can get between a vegan and a corporation's bottom line.
And because a number of undercover videos have been taken by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals, which ends its videos with the line: "Boycott animal abuse. Choose Vegan", Reilly and other gullible lawmakers across the country are falling for the new agribusiness lie that these people are going to "end animal agriculture".
In truth the only thing that will end family farmers being involved in animal agriculture in the U.S and abroad are the giant monopolies that meat companies and packing plants have been allowed to create in agriculture today and our government's absolute failure to protect family farmers from the economic abuses from the vertically integrated, massively consolidated meat industry that keeps tightening the financial screws on farmers, making it harder, if not impossible for them to stay in business.
Ironically, while legislators in Minnesota, Florida and Iowa have wasted many an hour bickering over the phantom menace of videotaping vegans, the Obama administration has failed to act on important Department of Justice investigations into monopoly abuses in agriculture and to finally step up to the plate to implement vital and fair livestock marketing protections for independent producers known as GIPSA.
These are the greater injustices in our society and something that legislators could easily accomplish to truly protect America's farmers. In reality, when the dust finally settles over the fight for rural America and our food supply, these will be the critical failures that future historians will point to for decimating America's farmers, not vegans with video cameras.
If the few farmers that remain in livestock production in Iowa think it's a bad thing for an undercover activist to videotape their farm, wait until PETA and the Humane Society and other "radical" groups start a boycott of Iowa agricultural products because the state knowingly promotes the cover up of animal welfare abuses.
As Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment figures who influenced America's founding fathers, coolly observed more than two centuries ago: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".
And regretfully, this is where Iowa's elected officials stand today: ready to commit a grave offense against our constitution and democratic rights based on the advice of greedy fools who would aid and abet factory farms where some are bashing the brains out of animals with pickaxes rather than protecting those animals from harm and abuse. In doing so, they not only endanger the animals, but also Iowa's farmers, their economic livelihoods and the reputation and safety of all food produced in the state of Iowa.