Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What is ag-gag legislation?

Ag-gag legislation has the potential to impact all animal industries. But who would it really protect?

What’s your position on so-called “ag-gag” legislation? Ever heard of it? Over the weekend I attended the NSW Law Society’s Animal Law conference, a sold-out event attracting mostly lawyers and law students, although it was nice to see a handful of vets present.

Jed Goodfellow, a PhD candidate and lecturer at Macquarie University, gave a talk about “ag-gag” legislation that proved fascinating.

So what is ag-gag legislation? According to Mr Goodfellow, it’s “any law or legal instrument, which in form or operation, has the effect of impeding public and political communication about agricultural practices, particularly relating to the treatment of animals.”

ANY animals – dogs, cats, pigs, horses, birds – you name it. The term was coined in 2011 by Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times. He was referring to legislation designed to gag people wishing to expose agricultural practices such as systemic cruelty towards production animals.

The original article is interesting and well worth a read.

According to Mr Goodfellow, ag-gag legislation is the result of two opposing forces that have grown particularly in Western societies: on the one hand, there is industrialised animal agriculture which is based on the view that animals have instrumental value – that is, we value them as a resource for humans. 

On the other hand is the animal protection movement, based on the assumption that animals have inherent value – that is, they are valuable in and of themselves.

Ag-gag legislation had been present in three US states for some time before the term was coined, but it was cases such as those written about by Bittman that prompted agricultural companies to lobby for protection and suddenly many US states were seeking to introduce similar legislation (much of which has been defeated by objection that such legislation violates the constitutional right to free speech).

According to Mr Goodfellow, ag-gag type legislation normally features -

  1. A prohibition on taking photographs or video footage on or in an agricultural facility or property without the permission of the proprietor;
  2. A prohibition on publishing or otherwise distributing such photographs or video footage;
  3. A prohibition on seeking employment with an agricultural business under false pretences or without disclosing  ties to animal rights organisations;
  4. Some form of trespass offense, and duplication of other offences that already exist in different statutes;
  5. A requirement that any documentary evidence of animal mistreatment is reported to relevant authorities within a specified timeframe and
  6. Significant penalties including terms of imprisonment, fines and other financial penalties where the economic loss caused to particular business or industry due to the publication of footage is a relevant factor in determining the amount.

He said that proposed Australian legislation that incorporates some or all of these features includes the Surveillance devicesbill (South Australia) (since voted down); the Criminal Code Amendment (AnimalProtection) Bill (Commonwealth) and the Biosecurity Bill (NSW).

Mr Goodfellow pointed out that whilst the above criteria may be designed to protect agricultural business, they are likely to have the reverse impact: by overtly protecting agriculture from scrutiny there is a risk of increasing distrust in such industries and reducing confidence in the food supply.

Those of us who work with animals, whether companion or production animals, are already experiencing increased scrutiny from the public. My personal view is that overall this has had a positive impact on the welfare of animals. 

On the flip side, it is undeniable that cruel practices such as live-baiting of greyhounds wouldn't have been exposed without meticulousinvestigation of an animal protection group. They argue that the reason they undertook the undercover investigation in the first place is that the authorities were not doing so.

In concluding his presentation, Mr Goodfellow said that “We need to close the gap between community expectations and the current treatment of farm animals”. It seems to me that being more transparent about operations makes more sense, and is much more likely to benefit animal welfare, than punishing those who seek to expose poor practice and cruelty with gaol terms and fines that exceed those for cruelty offences.