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Some Canadian lawmakers want to go after whistleblowers in agriculture

Agricultural gag or “ag-gag” laws have slowly gained a foothold in Canada, putting animals, workers, the public and the planet at risk

August 31, 2023

3-minute read

The process of getting food to our plates is not always pretty—especially when it comes to foods derived from animals, such as meat, milk and eggs. Undercover exposés have repeatedly revealed gut-wrenching animal cruelty in animal agriculture, even at small-scale slaughterhouses that claim to sell “humane” meat.

Consumers are paying more attention than ever to where their food comes from—and the animal agriculture industry has been quietly working to further prevent the public from gaining a glimpse into the grim reality that is industrial animal farming.

Provinces are passing chilling new legislation, inspired by deeply problematic regulations in the U.S.. Agriculture gag—or “ag gag”—laws are a type of anti-whistleblower legislation that applies in the agriculture industry. These laws criminalize the practice of filming on farms without the consent of the farm-owner, as well as gaining access to farms under “false pretenses.” Activists have long used “undercover” filming of animal abuse, worker exploitation, and food safety issues on farms as a method of protesting abuses. Ag-gag laws are meant to criminalize that activity.

Since late 2019, four provinces—Ontario, Alberta, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba—have introduced ag-gag laws. Now, a federal ag-gag bill is under consideration, having been introduced by Conservative MP John Barlow in 2022 and having passed second reading with almost unanimous support in late June. Private Member’s Bill C-275, An Act to amend the Health of Animals Act (biosecurity on farms), will be studied by the federal Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food this fall, at which point it will either be quashed or move ahead to third reading, with or without amendments.

Ag-gag laws curtail the fundamental right to free expression, and they have no place in a democratic society. They criminalize whistleblowers for trying to shed light on what happens behind closed barn doors or in animal transport trucks, and Bill C-275 is no exception.

It proposes that “No person shall, without lawful authority or excuse, enter a building or other enclosed place in which animals are kept, or take in any animal or thing, knowing that or being reckless as to whether entering such a place or taking in the animal or thing could result in the exposure of the animals to a disease or toxic substance that is capable of affecting or contaminating them.” Trespassing laws already exist at the provincial level.

Like other ag-gag laws, Bill C-275 is framed as an effort to protect biosecurity. In reality, it will do the opposite. Research shows that out of hundreds of incidents of biosecurity issues and disease outbreaks tracked by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency over the past two decades, 100 per cent have been the result of poor biosecurity standards or adherence levels among employees and operators.

There is no known instance where a protestor or whistleblower caused an issue, yet the proposed law only pertains to those who are deemed trespassers, ignoring the many others—farmers, employees, inspectors, tourists of farms, attendees of exhibitions—who could carry and introduce a disease to animals.

The true goal of the bill is to stifle investigators and whistleblowers who seek to expose issues on farms, in slaughterhouses and in transport trucks. In Ontario and Alberta, where enacted ag-gag laws revoke individuals’ “lawful authority” when they are found to gain access to agricultural premises under “false pretenses”, whistleblowers are especially at risk.

This is a classic example of regulatory capture; policymakers who are supposed to safeguard the interests of the public instead appear to be catering to the interests of industry. It is not surprising, given the phenomenon of “agricultural exceptionalism, and the historic privileging of the agricultural industry by legislators and policymakers.” Unexpected or not, it is nevertheless alarming.

For the hundreds of millions of animals raised and killed for food each year in Canada, Bill C-275 will mean an even greater risk of mistreatment. Undercover exposés are usually the only way instances of animal cruelty can be documented and exposed, and they have revealed egregious animal abuse at farms across the country on numerous occasions, leading to important reforms.

Meanwhile, industrial farms already subject workers to poor hygienic conditions, pollution, hazardous working conditions and zoonotic diseases. Those farm workers clearly “suffered high rates of injury and experienced high rates of infection from COVID-19.” By dissuading employees, journalists and others from speaking out against cruel, unethical or illegal agricultural practices, Bill C-275 will hurt workers.

The World Health Organization notes that “Intensive animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change, deforestation, antimicrobial resistance, and air, soil and water pollution.” As the world looks for ways to prevent a climate catastrophe, associate law professor Jodi Lazare said it well: “Those concerned about our changing climate should be troubled by legislation that seeks to shield the activities of an industry that is a significant contributor to drought, environmental degradation, and global warming.”

Whistleblowers have been critical to shedding light on food safety issues, including unfit animals being loaded for transport, dead birds being left to rot next to eggs produced for human consumption, and Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors turning a blind eye to flagrant contraventions of national animal transport and food safety laws. Without transparency regarding what happens behind closed doors in the animal agriculture industry, food safety will undoubtedly worsen.

Some within the industry recognize the dangers of ag-gag laws and have spoken out against them, but the majority appear to be in favour of Bill C-275 and others like it. Anyone who cares about democracy, the right to free expression, animals, workers, public health and the planet should speak out against this dangerous bill.

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