David Hoppe

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:: Shining light on what we eat

Farm bills would keep us in the dark

by David Hoppe

It’s not unusual to hear farmers say they’re frustrated by how little the rest us know about where our food comes from. These farmers have a point. For most of us, food comes from the supermarket. It’s vacuum-packed and triple-washed. We know little or nothing about how it’s produced — and, often, what we think we know is only part of the story.

This frustration showed itself in a strange way last week. A committee of the Indiana Senate voted in favor of a proposal to make it illegal to photograph or videotape a farm or business without written permission. SB 373, which is endorsed by the Indiana Farm Bureau and Indiana Manufacturers Association, is aimed at keeping whistleblowers (or “do-gooders” and “bleeding hearts,” if you prefer) from trespassing on private property and taking pictures of what they find there.

Nobody likes uninvited people setting foot on their private property. Indeed, Indiana already has laws that expressly forbid trespassing, unless you happen to be a police officer, firefighter or other emergency worker trying to do your duty.

What SB 373 really wants to do is keep people, trespassers or otherwise, from putting images they record on and around farms or other businesses up on the Internet. These images could suggest or portray what appears to be cruelty to animals, environmental damage or potentially dangerous working conditions. Things, in other words, that might turn you off a particular product or business or, perhaps, motivate you to want to change the way things are done.

Supporters of this bill are likely to argue that the trouble with these sorts of images is that they present a distorted view of what’s happening. Pictures of pigs, say, in what look like awful conditions may be upsetting at first blush, but they don’t begin to explain everything that’s involved in making it possible for you to buy a boneless pork loin for $1.77 per pound at your local grocery store.

No, we civilians just don’t know enough about where our food comes from…

The strange thing about SB 373 is that it will keep us from knowing more about farming and other practices. While it is undoubtedly true that many of us have a lot to learn about where our food comes from, it is also undeniable that more of us than ever are eager to be taught.

Food is a hot topic. There’s a voracious public appetite for information about where what we eat comes from, how it is grown and raised, its impact on our health, as well as the ways it can enhance the quality of our lives. The evidence of this phenomenon is all around us — from the Food Channel on TV to the viral growth of farmers’ markets in cities and towns.

Some farmers have tried to get out in front of this movement by trying to make what they do as transparent as possible. Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana has turned its industrial-scale dairy into a tourist destination, where visitors can go from a “birthing barn,” where about 80 calves are born every day, to an amphitheater, to watch a seemingly endless stream of cows being channeled on to a massive Lazy Susan, where their milk is hygienically drained with bewildering efficiency. Word has it that, in the coming year, the farmers at Fair Oaks will begin expanding their operation to eventually include pork and poultry.

Closer to home, those who prefer a more handmade approach can visit Traders Point Creamery, which makes their organically-based, small-is-beautiful style business open to public view.

In both cases, farmers have chosen to see the public’s appetite for information about food as an opportunity to be embraced, rather than a challenge to suppress. You can’t begin to count the number of camera phones being held aloft, eagerly recording the cows being milked at Fair Oaks.

Unfortunately, SB 373 is not the only bill before this legislative session that seeks to create a greater distance between farmers and the rest of us. SJR 21 and, in the House, HJR 5, would go so far as to actually amend Article 1 of the Indiana Constitution, making “any law” unconstitutional that would abridge the right to “engage in traditional and modern farming and ranching practices.”

As the Hoosier Environmental Council has pointed out, this would constitutionally protect practices that are known to pollute waterways and, in some cases, create unbearable living conditions for neighbors due to penetrating smells and toxins in the air. According to HEC: “The inequity of protecting ranching and farming over all other Indiana industries and professions is manifestly clear…Allowing this industry to operate without limits, oversight or accountability would have devastating consequences.”

Not the least of which would be to perpetuate our ignorance about what we eat. Some farmers may think journalists, environmental activists and other snoops are out to get them. But these folks with their cameras are also potential customers whose curiosity about the food they eat is actually part of the best thing to happen to agriculture in more than a generation. They want to know where their food comes from. If this isn’t good news for farmers, the rest of us should want to know why not.