Food & Power: Broad Coalition Wins Key Fights Against Ag-Gag Laws

A coalition of animal rights groups, environmentalists, food safety advocates, farmers, and media organizations won two major victories against ag-gag laws early this month.

On September 6th, the state of Utah announced it would not challenge a federal judge’s July order to strike down the state’s 5-year-old ag-gag law. And on September 7th, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wyoming’s ag-gag law infringed on First Amendment rights.

The nation’s first ag-gag law was passed in 2012 in Iowa, after several undercover investigations by animal rights groups brought to light abusive conditions at factory farms. The law specifically targeted such practices by making it illegal to film or record inside an animal facility without the owner’s permission.

In the years since, eight other states have passed ag-gag legislation, and the laws have become increasingly more restrictive. In 2015, for instance, Wyoming made it illegal to collect any data on public lands with the intent of submitting that data to federal or state regulators. In 2016, North Carolina made it possible for employers to sue employees who take any pictures of the business without the employer’s permission. And in 2017, Arkansas passed a law similar to North Carolina’s.

David Muraskin, an attorney with Public Justice, says that the broadening of ag-gag laws “should worry everyone.” And indeed, the coalitions that brought the cases against the laws were highly diverse. In Wyoming, the state’s ag-gag law was challenged by a coalition that included the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Food Safety, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the National Press Photographers Association, who said the law restricted their ability to gather news images. In North Carolina, the law was challenged by, among other groups, AARP and the Wounded Warrior Project, who voiced concern that the expanded law would restrict data collection in nursing homes, hospitals, and other sites of care.

Ag-gag laws are mainly supported by corporations and trade associations that boost conventional agriculture. The Iowa law passed with the backing of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, the Iowa Farm Bureau, and Monsanto, among others. The Wyoming ag-gag bill was supported by the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. In its June 2017 policy outlook document, the WSGA pledges to support “legislation to increase the penalties for trespass…to prevent the use of illegally collected data.”

In Wyoming, two separate laws make it illegal for residents to collect data on public lands, imposing both civil and criminal penalties for such activities. Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, says that the laws originally targeted conservation groups and citizen scientists who were collecting water samples from Wyoming waterways to test for E. Coli contamination above levels permitted by the Clean Water Act. Runoff from large-scale conventional ranches can contribute to higher E. Coli levels in water systems. There are over 1.3 million cattle in Wyoming.

“Conservation groups play an incredibly valuable role” in helping agencies understand pollution and contamination issues, Molvar says. With the ag-gag law, he says the livestock industry “was trying to silence the gathering of evidence” that ranchers on public lands were violating federal pollution laws.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality announced September 12th that it was changing the designation of 80% of the state’s waterways from “primary contact recreation” to “secondary contact recreation.” The newly-designated bodies of water can now legally contain five times as much E. Coli bacteria than before.

Despite the recent victories, other states continue to pass similar ag-gag laws to prevent collection of data on conventional farming activities. On September 1st, Texas implemented a law that makes it illegal to fly a drone over a contained animal feeding operation (CAFO), or factory farm, in the state.

What We’re Reading

  • Pilgrim’s Pride, a US poultry processor, agreed to buy supplier Moy Park for $1 billion from the Brazilian company JBS. JBS, the largest meatpacker in the world, bought the Ireland-based company for $1.5 billion two years ago.
  • The Iowa Environmental Protection Committee denied a petition that would have made it harder to open new factory farms in the state. The petition would have required larger buffers between farms and neighboring properties, and more stringent construction requirements. The petition was brought by the environmental groups Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch.
  • Approximately 2,500 residents attended a town hall in Tonganoxie, Kansas to protest a proposed Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in the area. Residents expressed concern about the environmental impacts of the industrial farming operation. After the town hall, Tyson announced the plant was “on hold.”

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