August 23, 2015
Last week federal Judge Lynn Winmill ruled the Idaho Ag Security Act law unconstitutional. The “ag gag” law made it a crime to make undercover recordings or gain employment at a farm under false pretenses. Idaho legislators developed the law after an activist filmed and posted a video online showing cow mistreatment at an Idaho dairy, which led to death threats toward the farmer.
In his ruling, Winmill considered Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle. Winmill noted, “Sinclair, in order to gather material for his novel, ‘The Jungle,’ misrepresented his identity so he could get a job at a meat-packing plant in Chicago.” While focusing on immigrant exploitation, the novel heavily dealt with the treatment and conditions of livestock found in early 20th century packinghouses. The Jungle so impacted American society it lead to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The kicker for Winmill is, “Today, however, Upton Sinclair’s conduct would expose him to criminal prosecution under” the Idaho law.
The Winmill decision does not enhance the existing lives of animals, humans, or plants within today’s agricultural industry as much as it maintains a modicum of animal wellbeing. Enhanced wellbeing may come, but not before people begin to learn their own wellbeing is tied to that of animals, plants, soil, and water. For that to occur, grandparents, parents, and children must begin to understand where their food comes from and how it gets to their table.
The public’s engagement in understanding food is critical because the Winmill decision can also have a down side. Today, the disengagement of people from their food is so great they cannot distinguish between good animal treatment and bad. Awful or horrendous is easy enough to differentiate, but because of the gulf between people and their food, too many folk experience good animal treatment as bad. Lack of knowledge on the public’s part can only lead to mistreatment of farmers and ranchers who are treating their animals well.
Thirty some years ago we had the county veterinarian come by our place. Someone had driven by and reported one of our horses as mistreated. We took the vet out to the horses and introduced him to Barney, a 27 year-old quarter horse. Barney was as skinny as an old horse gets, ribby and hippy. After a bit we all headed up to the house, sat down, and had a cup of coffee. The Vet observed horses are no longer a part of peoples live. Since folk no longer work or travel by horse, they have little understanding of the difference between young, middle-aged, and old horses. Folk simply do not know that as horses move toward old age they get skinner, their skins thins, and they bruise easier—just like people. He noted he gets many more calls like this than he did when he began his practice.
Often when folk visit with us we take them to the local cattle auction yard. Most of the folk we take have already spent a week at the farm learning about how animals fit in the landscape. We take them to the auction yard because they have no baseline of animal fair treatment. Sure they have a reference point from being at the farm. However, the movement of animals from grasslands, to auction, to a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) can be much different from what happens on a farm or ranch and still be good treatment.
After visiting the auction yard we go to park in town and talk about the experience. Folk often arrive a bit on edge—some are quiet, some have cried, some are angry. Though animal treatment at the auction yard lies somewhere between good and excellent, a week at the farm is not enough time to give folk the eyes to see it. Lacking experience, thus a good baseline for treatment, folk experience the confinement and movement of animals from a personal perspective. In other words, they experience themselves in the pens and moving through the runs. The park conversation is often hard and emotional, and seldom done by the time we leave. However, because the conversation has begun, there is a chance a few folk will leave pondering the intersectionality between their eating, food-animal treatment, and how the lives of both animals and humans become better when people pay attention to food.
The Winmill decision is critical for food-animal wellbeing. However, it is no more than as stopgap measure. Real animal wellbeing does not occur from an undercover video; rather, the enhancement of their wellbeing occurs when people take on the responsibility of being an informed eater and becoming a practiced food buyer.