So far, the reaction against bills introduced in the Minnesota House and Senate that would impose increased penalties for trespassing and destroying property used for animal and crop agriculture, while imposing new penalities for video recording, audio taping and undercover investigations has focused mostly on cruelty to animals.
Missed in that? Cruelty to the free exchange of information in a marketplace.
The reactionary language pushed by the Agri-Growth Council--of dubious constitutionality when banning the instruments for expressing the rights of the free press--illustrates just how stupid corporate interests can be. At a time when a significant share of the consumer food market is clamoring to know about their food, the Agri-Growth Council seeks to impose a government-enforced ban on information. Maybe that's what that big party the Council threw for the RNC in 2008 that the journos loved so much was all about.
This is good business practice? Asymmetric information about quality of the product tipped to the seller's advantage? Seriously?
Go ahead: tell the consumers you think they're stupid and so unable to discern the truth about images surrounding agricultural protection, that the only recourse for the horny-handed tillers of the soil and cagers of red-eyed hens is to turn to government to ban camcorders, audio tape and investigative researchers and reporters.
I'm sure that will do wonders for agri-business's image. What's next? A food libel bill like the one that brought Oprah to trial?
Here's a hint about markets, guys. Theorists going back to Adam Smith have thought that markets work really well when there's free-flow of information. Let consumers gain confidence that your operations don't involve practices they object to, and they'll buy your products.
I've looked over the bill's language, and frankly, I don't find the sections about imposing higher penalties for trespassing and destruction or tampering with facilities, crops or animals to be objectionable. Whether ideologically motivated or not, vandalizing farms is a problem, especially since fields and production facilities are often remote from law enforcement. That part of the bill could help address this very real problem in rural Minnesota.
But placing these facilties behind a wall of secrecy will only encourage distrust of food production in America. Stories of dead chickens fed to live ones and the notorious "babe in a blender" practice by hog farmers in the 1990s? You want them? Really? Or the case that the Strib notes has motivated this bill's introduction:
Late last year, an investigator sent by the Humane Society into a large turkey hatchery in Willmar captured video images of practices that included workers tossing sick, injured or surplus animals into grinding machines while still alive. A company spokesman said at the time that the video showed acceptable industry practices but acknowledged that some of its employees' actions appeared to violate the company's animal welfare policies.
Perhaps industry could change its practice to accommodate what the market demands. Hoodwinking your customers might not be the best solution to the problems that this and other videos document. (There's also the possibility that this bill could be considered the Michael Vick Shield Law, by providing cover for those engaging in dog and cock fighting).
While the actual practice of public relations pioneer Ivy Lee had a very dark side, he did spin a theoretical maxim that might be helpful for the Agri-Growth Council:
"Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn't like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want."
And if you can't take apocryphal advice from William S. Burroughs uncle, I don't know what to tell you.
Images: Rod Hamilton, author of the House version (above); A promotion for the Agri-Growth Council's big 2008 party (below).
Disclosure: I serve as the president of the McLeod County Farmers Union. The Minnesota Farmers Union has not taken a position on the Magnus and Hamilton bills.