Agribusiness is Ruining Capitalism (Among Other Things)

Agribusiness is the reason we can’t have nice things.

The same industry that recently terrified consumers by including pink slime (or, euphemistically, “boneless lean beef trimmings”) in 70% of supermarket ground beef is now responsible for a new Iowa law that makes it a crime to misrepresent yourself in order to get a job at a farm. It had already been a crime in Iowa to record audio or video at a farm without the owner’s permission, but now that the organization Mercy for Animals has inconveniently shot footage of atrocious animal abuse at the Iowa egg farm Sparboe, lawmakers are upping the ante.

Oops, did I say lawmakers? I meant the lobbyists that have them on puppet strings.

The purpose of these “ag-gag” laws (as they’re being called) is obvious–it’s to make it harder for people to get access to farms and find out what’s really going on there. Agribusinesses may claim that these laws prevent them from being “misrepresented” and that the abuses filmed by activists were just a “one-time” thing, the truth is that if they had nothing to hide, they’d have no problem with people coming in and looking at their farms. As one hog farmer says, “We have a problem with a lot of undercover videos that go into livestock production facilities looking for things that might be out of ordinary and, I think many times, fabricating things that are not happening on regular basis.”
He does not specify how it is possible to “fabricate” something that, as he says, is simply “out of the ordinary.” (Which, of course, it isn’t.)

One might wonder why it would even be necessary to pretend to be someone else in order to get a job at a farm, or to film without the owner’s permission. Well, it’s because they won’t let you do it otherwise. All the books I’ve read about factory farming, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the companion book to Food, Inc., mention how difficult it is to obtain access to these farms.

Even assuming that a journalist manages to enter the premises without hiding his/her identity or intentions, many states have laws that make it extremely dangerous to criticize agribusiness. Consider this passage from Fast Food Nation:

Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies. Over the past decade, “veggie libel laws” backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a matter inconsistent with “reasonable” scientific evidence. The whole concept of “veggie libel” is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books. Oprah Winfrey, among others, has been sued for making disparaging remarks about food. In Texas, a man was sued by a sod company for criticizing the quality of its lawns. … In Colorado, violating the veggie libel law is now a criminal, not a civil, offense. Criticizing the Greeley slaughterhouse could put you behind bars. (pg. 266-67)

So, it’s not very surprising that activists now have to go undercover to tell the truth about what’s going on inside factory farms.

Iowa’s new law wouldn’t be so bad if these films didn’t have as huge an impact as they do. Four of Sparboe’s biggest clients–Target, McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Supervalu–have stopped doing business with the farm since seeing video that Mercy for Animals created. Similar results came about for other farms due to whistleblowing films (see the fifth paragraph of this article for some examples).

Ag-gag laws like Iowa’s are now pending in seven other states, including Illinois, where I attend school and where I will soon be writing to my district’s state representatives.

One may debate the importance of animal welfare (well, I wouldn’t debate it, but many people would), but here’s something that most Americans probably consider undebatable: consumers deserve to know the truth about the products they buy so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. Companies that cannot make products that consumers want to buy should either change their business model or go out of business.

But laws that protect agribusiness from public scrutiny turn this model upside down. Now industrial farms can produce food (or, I should say, “food”) using whichever methods are cheapest and easiest for them, regardless of what consumers would actually buy if they knew the truth.

Of course, the notion of companies hiding their manufacturing methods from the public in order to cut costs without sacrificing consumer loyalty is neither new nor limited to the agriculture industry. Controversies over conditions at iPhone factories and the safety of pharmaceuticals, for instance, are old news by now.

However, agriculture is different for several reasons. First of all, the fact that certain states depend so heavily on it means that agribusiness lobbyists can more easily bend state lawmakers to their will. Second, the increasing pervasiveness of industrial farms means that, without regulation, it is becoming impossible for ethical farmers to compete (except by pandering to the sort of consumers who shop at Whole Foods). Third, unlike iPhones or Nike sneakers, food directly impacts people’s health, making it that much more urgent for people to know how their food is produced and to be able to make choices based on that knowledge. Finally, unlike most other industries, agriculture affects every single person who eats animal products of any kind. To avoid products from industrial farms, you would literally have to become a vegan–or, at the very least, dedicate your life to finding out exactly where all those free-range hens and cage-free eggs are actually coming from, since product labeling standards are pretty lax for these things.

A free market isn’t really free if basic information about products is kept from consumers. Most Americans probably wouldn’t want to eat eggs that come from hens whose beaks are burned off to keep them from pecking each other in overcrowded, filthy cages. They probably wouldn’t want to eat beef from cows that were literally bulldozed into the slaughterhouse because they were too sick to walk.

The legislators who pass laws allowing for these flagrant abuses to be kept secret from the American public ought to remember who they were elected to serve.

Here’s a hint: it’s not the agribusinesses.

Update (3/15/12): Et tu, Utah?

Let Them Eat Snacks

Next up on the syllabus: snacks.

In what might be the best argument for the abolition of the tenure system that I have personally heard of, a professor at Cal State Sacramento has walked out of his own class to protest the fact that some students didn’t bring snacks.

To elaborate, the professor, George Parrott, has had the following “snack policy” since shortly after he began teaching in 1969: students must “work in teams” to provide a homemade snack for each class, or else he’ll refuse to teach it. Apparently this helps promote teamwork and teach students about the consequences of unreliability.

Well, recently Parrott was forced to follow through on his threat because some students failed to bring snacks to class, and now university administrators are investigating the matter. (I don’t really know what there is to investigate. Dude’s been doing this since the 70s, so I’m sure it’s not news to them.)

Two things disappoint me most about this occurrence. The first is that the aforementioned wingnut is a member of his school’s psychology department. It always seems like it’s us psychologists who fuck everything up. Forcing people to electrocute each other, turning them malicious by pretending they’re in prison, having live sex demonstrations on stage…and now this. Seriously, academic psychology can’t seem to catch a break.

The second disappointing factor is that one of my favorite magazines/blogs, GOOD, has come out with an article in support of this inane policy. GOOD is all about alternative education, which doesn’t surprise me since its education section is “in partnership with University of Phoenix,” which might be the biggest baloney of a “university” I’ve ever heard of.

Anyway, the article claims, among other things, the following:

It’s well established that students who have close relationships with their peers or professors are less likely to drop out. At a time when only 30 percent of adults over 25 have a degree and only 56 percent of college students earn a degree in six years, colleges are looking for ways to ensure that students feel like they belong on campus.

Leaving aside the fact that canceling a class doesn’t seem like the best way to facilitate close relationships, I have this to say about Parrott’s methods: he clearly hasn’t studied his own field very well. The technique Parrott is using when he denies a lecture to the entire class because of one student’s mistake is a grade-school staple called collective punishment. It’s something I’ve fervently opposed ever since I was old enough to understand what it was (which, for me, was pretty damn young). Collective punishment is based on the premise that if one person causes negative consequences for the rest of the group, the other group members will convince bully that person into changing their behavior. What a great way to make students “feel like they belong on campus.”

Of course, there’s lots more wrong with this situation than just the dubious use of social psychology to manipulate people. First of all, if you poll random college students about why they’re in college, things like getting a degree and acquiring knowledge in their chosen field are likely to be higher on the list than learning about teamwork. Is teamwork important? Sure. But that’s not what we’re paying thousands of dollars for.

If he were that passionate about students learning how to work together, the professor could’ve taught a class about teamwork and petitioned to have it made mandatory. Or he could’ve had the class work in groups to carry out research projects or make short presentations at the beginning of each class. Or any number of things that are less stupid than forcing people to make their own snacks on their own time and money.

Some might defend this, saying that many of his students like the policy and that it’s not that hard to make snacks and whatnot. But I would argue that, when it comes to education, it’s the principle of the thing. Nobody should be picking classes based on whether or not they have time to bake cookies. Nobody should be denied a class because some random idiot forgot to.

Difficult ≠ Impossible

I’m going to come out of my cave and write about something that pisses me off. (OK, so I could start any blog post this way, but whatever.)

Here’s something that I consider one of the most glaring cultural problems in America today–it’s the idea that just because something is difficult, it is impossible and not worth trying. Our culture has become a deeply pessimistic one, and the message that it sends these days is “Oh, forget it, we could never change that anyway.”

Don’t believe me? Well, you should, because I’m right. There’s a reason that the issues that land on the political agenda are fairly simple–go to war, or not go to war. Allow gay marriage, or not allow gay marriage. Raise the debt ceiling, or don’t raise it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these issues aren’t fraught with difficulties of their own. But they are very simple–yes or no. Right or wrong. Do, or don’t.

The issues that don’t really get talked about much are the complex ones. How to fix our education system. How to achieve equality between women and men, and between whites and people of color. How to create a more just and sustainable food system. How to end our addiction to oil. How to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. How to encourage democracy to take root in other parts of the world without shoving it down people’s throats.

To be sure, our government does things to try and ameliorate these issues somewhat, but they’re always band-aid solutions to broken-bone problems. For instance, George W. Bush tried to “fix” our schools with No Child Left Behind. President Obama issued empty threats to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop settlement building, with no regard for the religious and political complexities that the settlement issue dredges up. Then there’s that little Iraq thing. As for our screwed-up food system, racial justice, and ditching the oil habit, I don’t think anything’s being done at all.

Try coming up to an older person (by which I mean, someone old enough to have their own kids) and talking to them about these issues. About education, about food, about the racism still embedded deep within our society. Ten bucks says they tell you something like, “Yeah, it’d be great if that could get fixed, but face it–it’s never gonna happen.”

Why? Why the hell not?

Well, because it’s hard.

People think that these things are never gonna get fixed because it’s so hard to fix them. And by hard, I mean like when you’re trying to do a math problem and you don’t even know where to start. You’re completely stuck. Nothing you’ve ever learned is going to help you here.

The stuff that gets in the news, like gay marriage, the debt ceiling, and all of that sort of stuff, is different from these issues because, despite our disagreement on them, we know what to do. We either vote yes, or no. But you can’t vote “yes” or “no” on education reform or on ending racism, because you have to figure out what the hell to actually do about it.

Note what a clusterfuck occurs when our government actually tries to take on a complex and nuanced issue–for instance, healthcare reform. It nearly stops functioning. Our culture is terrified of complexity.

Usually when young people like me talk about fixing some of these complicated problems, older people call us “idealists.” (And that’s at best–sometimes they use less charitable labels.) To me, all that’s saying is that we’re willing to think about and talk about things that are hard, and “realistic” people are not.

Well, realism is dooming this country. Realists are people who don’t think we can stop global warming, who don’t think we can have just and efficient healthcare, education, and food systems, who don’t think we can ever achieve equality between sexes, races, socioeconomic classes, or sexual orientations.

And guess what? If you tell yourself you can’t do something, it’s not going to get done.

And anyway, isn’t that a terribly demoralizing thing to say? I think we’re selling ourselves short when we say that we can’t solve complex problems like these. After all, the human race invented democracy, finance and agriculture, created the Mona Lisa, painted the Sistine Chapel, put a man on the moon, eradicated polio, and set up the Internet. Do our accomplishments really end there?

Just because something is difficult does not mean it’s impossible. Things that are impossible, at least with our current knowledge and technology, are traveling through time, sprouting wings and flying, curing cancer, and turning lead into gold. But things that are merely difficult? Well, that’s just about everything else.