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Corporate Agribusiness Wants to Restrict Your Free Speech

From the Progressive Populist
http://www.populist.com/06.4.mcmillen.html
March 1, 2006

RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen
Ag Lobbyists Target Activists

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 Margotfulton@aol.com.
From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2006