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Corporate Agribusiness Wants to Restrict Your Free Speech

Ask someone who's studied industrialized agriculture and they'll tell you it's bad because large monocultures and confined animals pollute the air and water. Then they'll tell you the food that comes from industry is tasty but unhealthy. They'll tell you it's cheap because it's subsidized by the government with so many subsidies that the big companies ought to give it away.

Then they'll tell you the big guys hog the resources and put farmers out of business rather than helping rural economies. They'll cite the studies that say that rural counties with small farms have less spousal abuse, more kids in school, more churchgoers and more engaged parents. And, finally, they'll tell you that the big players manipulate the democracy.

Manipulate democracy? How's that work?

Right now, in a state house near you, a few amoral lobbyists and politicians are working their black magic. They are few because they've bought out or squeezed out all the smaller companies. And they are powerful.

In Iowa, lawmakers are pushing for a bill to label and punish people who complain about factory farms in their neighborhood. The so-called "chronic complainers" may be researchers or they may be citizens trying to protect their families and their real estate investments, but under this law if you complain three times about industrialized agriculture, you are labeled and you have no right to be heard.

In 13 states, there are already laws against disparagement of agriculture.

In the words of South Dakota's version, this includes "dissemination ... of any information ... that an agricultural food product is not safe for consumption ... or that generally accepted agricultural and management practices make ... food products unsafe ..."

That was the law that Oprah fought in Texas when she was prosecuted for saying she'd not eat another hamburger. She won the battle, by the way, but the war is still on.

In Missouri and Illinois and many other states, lawmakers are pushing a law forbidding photography or dissemination of photographs taken inside an agricultural research or production facility. Violation would result in a misdemeanor citation. One of the only groups brave enough to stand up to this particular travesty is the animal welfare coalition, who want to be able to take and disseminate pictures of the outrageous abuse they find in puppy mills.

But, besides protecting puppy mill operators, passage of these laws jeopardizes the rights of employees, researchers and scientists to protect the public or to even carry out their work. If, for example, an employee, researcher or scientist presents results of an experiment at a national meeting, that researcher will (in the language of the bill) "knowingly distribute records, data, material, equipment or animals" or "photographic, video or electronic image ..." and can be prosecuted.

Furthermore, one section of the bill forbids scientists and researchers from raising, soliciting, collecting, donating or providing material support. In other words, research scientists in Missouri and funders who "provide material support" will be at risk of breaking the law if they pay for research.

And if the scientists, researchers and employees somehow manage to raise the money and distribute their findings in spite of this bill, major discoveries will go unpromoted because journalists are at risk if they possess "records, data, material, equipment ... or any photographic, video or electronic image

But the most appalling part of this bill is the impact on consumers. Make no mistake about it. When we speak of "agricultural research and production facilities" we are talking about farms and ranches. And that means we are talking about food security.

This bill would prevent employees from collecting evidence if the food system is at risk. It would prevent employees from collecting evidence if there was, for example, a die-off caused by avian flu that might be transmitted to humans. This year we are reminded that the idea of a pandemic, which seemed very far off a few years ago, is very near with the news about H5N1 moving from Asia and into Europe. The major victims of this flu so far have been birds and the humans that work in close proximity to them, but scientists tell us that the flu could quickly migrate to pass human to human. This would be a tragedy and SB615 would keep the news from the public unnecessarily.

In fact, it is a puzzle how this bill would serve the public good, if passed. It could cause large problems to public health, safety and homeland security.

Is there a similar bill proposed for your state? Find out, and call your lawmakers to let them know where you stand.

Protectionist laws have a long tradition in our nation, and much of the tax code is skewed to help these industrial giants. The only way to fight is by learning as much as you can, and supporting independent producers. There are a growing number of independents in every state. Find out who they are, and fill your freezer with their good products.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2006