Iowa’s Waged A War To Silence Big Ag Critics. We’re Trying To Stop Them In Court.

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Food System

by Tyler Lobdell

Iowa legislators are determined to hide dirty factory farm practices from the public. Across the country, Big Ag has been pushing unconstitutional statutes known as “Ag-Gag” laws —  anti-transparency laws designed to silence journalists, activists, and impacted community members who dare to expose food safety violations, animal abuse, and environmental degradation at factory farms. They do so by criminalizing essential free speech activity like undercover investigations. 

Iowa enacted its first Ag-Gag law in 2012, and has since passed three more in response to court decisions striking down these laws for violating the First Amendment. Rather than protecting Iowans’ rights, Iowa’s industry-controlled legislators tweak their illegal approach in repeated attempts to skirt the Constitution. Which leads us to “Ag-Gag 4.0,” Iowa’s latest attempt to silence voices the factory farm industry doesn’t want the public to hear, in a way that legislators hope will survive legal challenge. 

Ag-Gag 4.0 takes a slightly different approach than previous attempts by making camera usage or data collection while trespassing an “aggravated” misdemeanor; this carries stiffer fines and jail time than a simple trespass. Legislators have brought absurd claims about the risk of “industrial espionage” to justify the law — the latest in a string of absurd reasons for infringing on Iowans’ constitutional rights. But we know their real goal is shielding Big Ag from public scrutiny. Which is why Food & Water Watch has joined a lawsuit to strike down Ag-Gag 4.0, just as so many other similar laws have been struck down in Iowa and across the country. 

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Unconstitutionally Infringing on Civil Liberties, Iowa Continues Pushing More Ag-Gag Laws

Given that the intent of Ag-Gag laws is to silence unwelcomed viewpoints protected by the First Amendment, it should come as no surprise that many Ag-Gag laws have been struck down or put on hold. The key provision of Iowa’s original 2012 Ag-Gag law, which criminalized false statements made by undercover investigators while seeking employment at factory farms, was just struck down by a court of appeals. Even more recently, another court of appeals struck down a core provision of Kansas’s Ag-Gag law. These losses follow in the footsteps of similar court decisions throwing out Ag-Gag laws in Idaho, Utah, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Despite the clear message from federal courts that Ag-Gag laws are unconstitutional, Iowa’s legislators have forged ahead undeterred.  

Ag-Gag Laws Protect The Financial Interests Of Iowa’s Corrupt Legislators And Their Donors 

If you are wondering why Iowa legislators would keep trying so hard to implement an Ag-Gag law that sticks, look no further than what comes to light whenever public interest advocates show what’s happening on factory farms. Undercover investigations consistently expose rampant food safety violations, environmental concerns, and disturbing animal abuse. So it’s no wonder the industry wants to put a stop to them!

And in Iowa, some legislators are the industry. One of the leading proponents of multiple Iowa Ag-Gag laws is state senator Ken Rozenboom. Senator Rozenboom owns multiple factory farms in Iowa, and has blocked proposals for a factory farm moratorium and stronger regulations of factory farm pollution. His factory farms were the subject of an undercover investigation showing appalling animal abuses — exactly the type of investigation his Ag-Gag laws seek to criminalize. This is a clear conflict of interest. 

That’s why Food & Water Action, FWW’s sister organization, filed an ethics complaint against Senator Rozenboom in August 2020 for violating the Iowa Senate’s Code of Ethics by pushing for legislation clearly designed to protect his personal financial interests. Senator Rozenboom tried to appear disturbed and upset by the abuse and deplorable conditions documented at his factory farms and tried to blame lower level management, but he knows that what was uncovered was business as usual. Factory farming’s only hope is to keep the public in the dark as long as possible.     

We Have a Right to Know How Our Food Is Produced

More than a century ago, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the horrors of early 20th century meatpacking. That transparency led to a sea change in U.S. food production, ushering in food safety laws still on the books today. But factory farms still operate largely in the dark, and shedding light on how animals are raised, slaughtered, and processed into food remains of great importance today. The factory farm industry understands that its business as usual practices would be shocking and unacceptable to their customers and the public at large, if exposed to the light of day. So, rather than clean up their act, they have lobbied hard to punish those who would expose the truth. As the Iowa Pork Producers Association explained, Ag-Gag laws protect factory farms “from various people [who] have hidden agendas and things like that.” 

But there is nothing hidden about our agenda. Food & Water Watch will continue fighting for transparency in Iowa and across the country. We will not rest so long as Iowa’s industry-bought legislators continue to abuse their power to silence dissent and keep factory farming in the shadows.

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Smithfield Claims To Be ‘Sustainable’ While Making Its Heavy Pollution Extra Profitable

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Food System

by Tyler Lobdell

We’ve all probably seen them, advertisements from corporate polluters that sound like they could have been written by an environmental protection group. This tactic, called greenwashing, has become all the rage with some of the biggest polluters to cover up their poisoning of the environment and harm to communities. And Smithfield Foods is a prime example, pushing an aggressive greenwashing campaign so that consumers will overlook that it is one of the biggest industrial polluters in the United States.

Instead of cleaning up its act by actually making its products without destroying the environment and health of those unlucky enough to live near its plants and the factory farms that raise its pigs, Smithfield is investing in slick tag lines and doubling down on its devastating factory farm model. Day in and day out Smithfield gets rich while spewing dangerous pollutants into our water, air, and soil. And now Smithfield is partnering with fossil fuel corporations to push factory farm “biogas” schemes to monetize its deliberate mismanagement of the nearly unfathomable amounts of waste it produces year after year. Factory farm biogas is a false solution that expands and entrenches the worst aspects of mega-factory farms and the dirty natural gas industry. But throughout Smithfield’s marketing — on its websites, social media accounts, and elsewhere — it tells consumers that its pork products are environmentally friendly and that it is a sustainability leader and climate champion. It’s grade-A greenwashing at its finest.

Not only is this deception bad for consumers and family farmers, it’s illegal. That’s why we’re calling on federal regulators to hold Smithfield accountable and put a stop to its false and misleading advertising.

Smithfield Is One of the Biggest Industrial Polluters, Making a Mockery of Its Sustainability Claims

Smithfield is one of the most harmful industrial polluters in the United States. It consistently puts profits over people and the environment, with factory farms and processing facilities throughout the country that rack up dozens of environmental violations every year. This is why Smithfield has been hit with tens of millions of dollars in damages as impacted communities have successfully taken the mega-polluter to court for causing conditions that make their homes nearly unlivable. The federal judges did not mince their words, recognizing that “interlocking dysfunctions” are characteristic of how Smithfield produces its products, and that the company willfully and wantonly harmed its neighbors to maximize profits.

Smithfield’s Claims About Factory Farm Biogas Are Quintessential Corporate Greenwashing

Smithfield’s latest scheme to hide its harm to public health and the climate is its promotion of anaerobic digesters to produce so-called “biogas.” These digesters are tanks or lagoons that create an oxygen-free environment where microbes eat part of Smithfield’s manure and emit a mixture of gases, mostly methane and carbon dioxide, that the digester captures. This factory farm biogas can then be refined and burned just like fossil natural gas. Far from showing a “longstanding commitment to sustainability,” as Smithfield claims, building new factory farms and entrenching its irresponsible waste mismanagement to extract biogas only perpetuates the myriad harms caused by its factory farm production model. In fact, Smithfield’s digesters can make its waste even more harmful to waterways than what it started with.

What Smithfield is really doing is doubling down on its legacy of extreme pollution, because its factory farm biogas scheme fundamentally depends on the worst parts of how it has chosen to produce its pork products on the cheap. Smithfield promotes digesters as reducing its methane emissions and producing “renewable” energy, but fails to mention that this methane is the direct result of Smithfield’s preferred waste management practice, where it liquifies enormous quantities of manure and stores it cheaply in rudimentary “lagoons” (pictured in the image above during a flood). In contrast, when animal manure breaks down naturally, on a pasture for example, it does not generate methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is 90 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period. Simply put, Smithfield misleadingly tells consumers its pork is environmentally friendly and that it is a leader in sustainability because it is slapping a bandaid over the climate destroying pollution that it deliberately created in the first place. But we aren’t letting this deception go unanswered.

Taking the Smithfield Greenwashing Case to the Federal Trade Commission

Food & Water Watch and a coalition of environmental and sustainable, family farming groups* have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) calling for enforcement of federal law against Smithfield’s false and misleading marketing. Under the FTC Act, companies are prohibited from promoting their products in any way that is likely to mislead reasonable consumers. As our complaint makes clear, Smithfield’s sustainability marketing tells consumers that its pork products have environmental attributes that are in stark contrast to the reality of how Smithfield does business, duping them into buying its products.

This unfair and illegal practice not only harms consumers, but also harms truly sustainable family farmers who invest the time, effort, and money into producing products that actually match what conscientious consumers expect. By illegally marketing its products, Smithfield makes it nearly impossible for these honest producers to compete in the marketplace, and for consumers to tell the difference.

Smithfield reportedly brought in more than $11 billion in revenue in 2020, so it can afford to clean up its act and transition away from the factory farm model that takes such a tremendous toll on the environment and local communities. But instead, it has opted for false solutions like factory farm biogas so it can wring more money out of its dangerous and polluting production facilities.

Smithfield’s products are not “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly,” and the FTC must act to hold this mega-polluter accountable for lying to the public and its customers.

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*Along with Food & Water Watch, the FTC complaint is joined by Cape Fear River Watch, Dakota Rural Action, Family Farm Action Alliance, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Pennsylvania Farmers Union, and Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.