Farming and Ranching

Jennifer Banks: Ag sector should boost standards, not punish filming

Controller and financial analyst, Scythe & Spade Co. in EagleMay 21, 2014 

BI columnist Jennifer Banks.JPG

Jennifer Banks

STATESMAN FILE

Idaho agriculture contributes over $18 billion to the state's GDP, so it's no surprise that Idaho politicians are interested in the industry. Agriculture is a part of budget discussions, environmental quality assessments and wildlife management policies. This past year Idaho ag has gotten even more attention after passage of the "ag-gag" law.

I tried explaining this legislation to my kids. They thought the law was to keep people from hurting animals. I had to clarify that although that's how the whole discussion started, this legislation will neither prevent animals from getting hurt nor punish those who do the hurting. It's really a law against trespassing and will serve only to punish whistleblowers.

A coalition of organizations is challenging the law on the basis that it hinders free speech and that the punishment for the crime is worse than the penalty for harming animals. However, it's too easy to call out proponents of this law as advocates of animal cruelty. Animals are the livelihood of dairymen and cattle ranchers, and it makes no sense for them to mistreat their animals.

I understand how the dairy industry is looking at this. A third party with video or audio recordings can too easily twist the situation and unfairly hurt the business. As a former board member for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, I understand public scrutiny. Many times the organization I love has been the victim of unfair representation in videos or recordings. There are certain boundaries businesses must enforce that are not meant to conceal wrongdoing or reflect poor standards. In this regard I agree with a law that prevents nonemployees entering businesses by using force, threats, or misrepresentation with the intent to cause harm. I also agree that it should be unlawful to make video or audio recordings in private facilities without the owner's permission.

So why didn't the dairy industry and the lawmakers behind the bill stop there? They could have better positioned their claim. Why make the penalty for filming animal abuse more harsh than the penalty given to the abusers?

Although recording within a private facility without permission sounds a lot like trespassing, I also believe that we deserve to know what goes on with our food supply. Why is our industry scared of transparency in the food system? Laws made to ensure the safety of animals and quality of animal handling are extremely important. Time should be spent on improving industry standards rather than finding ways to criminalize behaviors that are nothing more than a response to poor standards. Shouldn't we start at the root of the problem?

My husband calls me a devil's advocate, but I think of it as trying to understand both sides of the issue. I commend those who are stepping up to ask questions, write letters to the editor and take this law to the courts. Idaho's agriculture industry would be well-served to listen and address quality concerns more proactively.

Disclosure: I work or have worked for companies that conduct business with dairymen and cattle operators. I speak on behalf of myself and not Planned Parenthood or its affiliates.

JenniferB@agmanagement.com; 893-5333

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