Food for Thought – HF 589, the “Ag-Gag” Bill

Iowa City Farmer Derek Roller (Echocollective) attends a CSA Fair. Photos by Jay Geisen.

In early March, the Iowa legislature passed HF 589, the law that has come to be known as the “Ag-Gag” bill. After months of public outcry over the original bill’s First Amendment implications—including a Slow Food Iowa petition that generated 41,000 signatures—the softened bill garnered bipartisan support in both the Iowa House and Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Branstad. In the weeks since, activists, farmers and consumers alike are wondering what the new law will mean to them.

House Bill 589 was meant to curb the surreptitious videotaping of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) in Iowa. Its final language outlaws “agricultural production facility fraud” and criminalizes the act of gaining access to an agricultural facility under false pretense and making false statements as part of an employment application with the intent to commit an unauthorized act.

“There’s already plenty of laws against trespassing, against slander, against breaking and entering and against libel,” says Kurt Friese, owner of Iowa City restaurant Devotay and member of the leadership committee of Slow Food Iowa. “All of these laws are already in place, what do they need these special laws for?”

While the law seems superfluous to critics such as Friese, it could have been much, much worse. “The first bill was not just a ban on videotaping, but a ban on the possession or distribution of the videotape, putting it right up there with child pornography,” he explains.

In its current form, the bill stops short of an outright ban on unsanctioned videotaping on farms, rejecting language found in the failed 2011 version that was criticized for limiting speech. It throws most of its weight behind intent, leaving many to wonder how it could possibly be enforced.

The complicated evolution that led to the weakened version of the law can be seen as influence-peddling at its least effective. “They were looking to get the best of both worlds,” says Friese “They can say to loudmouths like me, ‘Look, this law won’t really do anything.’ And then they can turn to their funders over in the CAFO lobby and say, ‘Okay we passed it for you’ and give me some more money for my re-election.’”

For  Iowa Farm Bureau Federationrepresentative Laurie Johns, the

Hue Hill Farm is one of many Iowa growers working to tell their story to curious customers.

criminal implications of the law are not as important as the ethical standards it imposes. “The first thing you need to know,” says Johns, “is that it has nothing to do with filming.” She points out that any worker, farmer or witness to perceived abuse can call in an anonymous tip at any time to the Animal Rescue League, and that many farmers install cameras in their own facilities, monitoring for safety and ethics. For Johns, such self-policing in the agriculture industry is what keeps farming practices safe for animals and workers, not laws such as HF 589. She says the bill helps ensure that every worker coming to an Iowa farm has the skills to properly care for the animals. She also stresses the need for honesty in journalism surrounding agriculture. “Ask a farmer!” she says. A former journalist herself, she points out how ethically unsound it is to try to secretly film a person’s place of business, claiming that the vast majority of farmers would be more than happy to allow a look at their facilities.
In an email, Jennifer Holtkamp of Iowa Select Farms said “It is clear to us that these activist organizations try to mislead and manipulate the public’s perception of animal agriculture.” Iowa Select’s Kamrar, Iowa, farm was targeted by Mercy for Animals in a video called “Concealed Cruelty.” Despite conditions that Holtkamp says are in-line with state regulations as verified by “an independent study conducted by a leading animal well-being expert at Iowa State University,” the film is so gruesome YouTube has restricted it to viewers 18 and over.

Some remain concerned about just whose activities are targeted and criminalized by the bill. Randall Wilson of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union told the Des Moines Register, “We all know it’s a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate investigative reporting and whistle-blowing regarding abuses in our food production chain.” The ICLU continues to investigate the bill and, likewise, agricultural lobbyists for Monsanto and Dupont/Pioneer continue to pressure state government to enact more aggressive protections for Iowa farmers whose reputations, they say, have been tarnished by undercover videos.

Advocacy groups, on the other hand, blame farmers for tarnishing their own reputations with inhumane practices. When asked if the law will stop undercover filming attempts by such groups, Friese is doubtful: “My guess is that they will begin recruiting people who are already working in these facilities, so they did not lie to get the job.”

Johns emphasizes that the Farm Bureau works with all sorts of farmers, from owners of confinement hog facilities to tenders of free-range goats. She explains that they are not about “big” versus “small,” saying that, although the interests of independent farmers are not always the same as the interests of larger companies, both are necessarily committed to the needs of their customers. Johns points out that, for both types of companies, “the customer is always right.”

A prime example of consumer-driven change took place this February, when one of the world’s largest corporate consumers, McDonalds, announced a requirement that all of its pork suppliers must be gestation crate free by May. The fast-food chain has been targeted by several organizations, most notably Mercy for Animals, whose YouTube video “McDonalds Cruelty: The Rotten Truth About Egg McMuffins,” has gotten almost one million views. In a New York Times article, Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society heralds the ramifications of McDonald’s move: “While we’ve been able to pass laws against gestation crates that are very important, this announcement by McDonald’s today does more to put the writing on the wall for the pork industry than anything that’s happened previously.” Smithfield, one of the world’s largest producers of pork, has also jumped on the wagon, vowing to phase out gestation crates in all of its facilities by 2017.

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Would these recent changes in the industry have been possible without the help of undercover videos gone viral? It is difficult to say, but there are plenty of other more transparent means that are also being utilized. Research facilities, such as the Iowa State University School of Veterinary Medicine, make animal welfare a top priority, and just this February the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association held a full day of conferences dedicated to eradicating animal abuse and neglect. Among the proposals was a project called Iowa Farm Animal Care(IFAC), a community-based approach for a centralized animal abuse reporting system in Iowa.

Compass Group, A regional art/activism collective, welcomes your testimony as they prepare to put Monsanto on (mock) trial, April 21 at the UI's Boyd Law Building Submissions and event info online at:

For those looking to become involved in food activism, there are many available public forums. This April, a regional collective known as Compass Group will hold “Monsanto Hearings” at The University of Iowa’s Boyd Law Building. UI Assistant Professor Sarah Kanouse, an organizer with the group, says “Activism is really about education—educating ourselves, first and foremost, and educating others.” The April event is a mock trial in which testifiers are given the chance to share, in any preferred media, ways that Monsanto has affected them. “With the political and legal systems as they exist so thoroughly dominated by forces friendly to agribusiness,” says Kanouse, “art can become a way not just to continue pushing the issues forward, but also to start collectively imagining new forms of political engagement.”

Kanouse encourages those with little time to publicly participate in activism to learn to cook their own meals at home. “Simply giving up industrially-raised meat a few times a week and replacing it with bean-based dishes can help both your budget and the planet.” Locally, Farmers’ Markets, Community-Supported Agriculture, Local Food Connections and other area organizations allow consumers to meet the very farmers who grow their food and understand the practices and principles they put into its production. On a global scale, the international Meatless Mondays initiative is an easy, realistic approach to moving toward a less meat-based diet.

“You’re not going to get the planet to stop eating meat—I don’t deny them their choice, but it’s their choice. Eating less meat makes sense. There’s so much more out there and your body needs a wide variety.” says Friese. Aside from the health benefits of consuming less meat, which has been shown to reduce chronic illness, there’s an added benefit: less pollution. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the meat industry generates nearly one-fifth of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. CAFOs are among the largest polluters in the state and Iowa residents tend to flee areas contaminated by their noxious odors, toxic water and unhealthy air. A study by the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Maharishi University of Management found that the largest state-wide decrease in population from 1980 to 2003 occurred in the ten to fifteen counties in Iowa with the largest number of hog confinements.

In the end, consumers who would like less involvement by corporate agriculture in the production of their meat (and the laws that govern said production), less highly polluting CAFOs in their backyards and less uncertainty about the treatment of the animals they eat must investigate the source their food and choose meat from farmers whose values align with their own. Local producers need funds to continue supporting their communities, and when factory farms see a reduction in profits they will have to consider making healthier changes.

Kristin Anderson enjoys writing poetry for herself and prose-type things for others. You can often find her running around Iowa City, watching Mad Men, or drooling over puggles.

Stephanie Catlett’s garden is a-planted and the flowers are a-bloomin’.