The food industry's hiding something: How to expose America's most secretive industry

Will Potter tells Salon about his ambitious new project: Using drones to investigate the facts behind our food

Published June 22, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>Joshua Resnick</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Joshua Resnick via Shutterstock/Salon)

In 2008, the Humane Society released a shocking video taken in a Southern California slaughterhouse. The footage depicted workers using chains and forklifts to drag cows that were too sick to stand across the floor. The abuse was appalling; the cows' condition, which indicated a food safety risk, led the USDA to order a recall of 143 million pounds of beef. It was the largest meat recall in U.S. history -- and it was all brought about by the work of an undercover whistleblower.

Since then, Big Ag has been hard at work preventing this sort of thing from happening again, but not by actually working to stop abuse -- at least, not completely. Instead, the industry's been pushing states to implement laws, known collectively as "ag-gag," aimed at silencing activists.

Eight states currently have ag-gag laws on the books, the most recent of which, in Idaho, takes anti-whistleblower legislation to a worrisome new extreme. Under the law, signed by Gov. C . L. “Butch” Otter, it is illegal for anyone not employed on the farms -- and undercover activists don't count -- to make recordings of what goes on there without the owner's explicit consent. In practice, that means videos taken of factory farms' illegal practices -- like this one, which depicts three workers at an Idaho dairy farm beating cattle with a cane, kicking and stomping on them once they've fallen and dragging one cow across the floor via a chain around its neck -- can no longer legally be made public.

But that these laws effectively allow animal cruelty to go undetected and unreported only scratches the surface of why critics find them so appalling. In the interest of protecting the agriculture industry, ag-gag laws criminalize whistleblowers and, ultimately, ensure consumers remain in the dark.

Enter Will Potter, an investigative journalist and 2014 TED Fellow who's dedicated his career to animal rights and environmental issues -- and to exposing the way people dedicated to such causes are treated as domestic terrorists by a government primarily interested in promoting corporate interests. Last week, Potter took to Kickstarter to pitch an ambitious new investigation: he's going to find out what's really going on at the factory farms and slaughterhouses hiding behind ag-gag laws.

And he's going to do it using drones.

It took only five days for Potter to meet his fundraising goal. As of Friday afternoon, he's raised $35,000 and counting to pay for everything he needs to produce his "aerial exposé": the drones, but also travel expenses, production costs for planned documentary and e-book, and plenty of legal counsel. The challenge now is going to be figuring out how to actually pull this off. It's unclear he'll find what he's looking for, Potter told Salon, and whether he'll be able to look at all without breaking the law. But he's excited to try. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below:

I thought I was going to help you gain Kickstarter backers, but apparently you didn’t need my help. Were you surprised?

Crazy, huh? It just happened in five days. I was floored by it. I mean we still need help -- I’ve been just kind of scrambling talking to photographers and other journalists that were interested in helping and kind of creating an expanded plan, because it seems to really resonate with people.

What has the response been like? Have you heard from other people who have been looking to do something like this?

It’s not so much people who were wanting to do the same, but a lot of people that were just intrigued by the idea. I have a good readership of activists and people that are already informed about these issues, but I was really blown away from the diversity of responses: people from a lot of different backgrounds and professional news organizations. The Kickstarter founder chipped in and made a donation. And helped publicize it. I mean just that kind of wide range of support was really striking to me.

Were you hearing from people in states where these ag-gag laws are going into effect?

Yeah, certainly. Not just where the laws have already been passed but where they’ve been debated, because this year we’ve had a half dozen states consider ag-gag laws. Last year it was about 12. So a lot of different people are becoming familiar with these as they’re popping up in their states, and also through the media coverage of the issue. So I think that’s really helped. As people are really more aware of ag-gag and frustrated and opposed to it, they’re supportive of attempts to continue carrying out investigations.

Take me through the legality of using drones. They’re legal if you’re not using them for commercial purposes and keep them out of restricted areas. So even in states with ag-gag laws in effect, can you can still fly over farms?

It is a complicated legal area, because in addition to ag-gag laws there are some states that have restrictions on drone usage specifically already. For instance, in Texas, a -- for lack of a better word -- hobbyist drone photographer caught images of blood coming out of a slaughterhouse into the Trinity river area, and it led to this full-scale investigation. And also in response, the legislature just passed an incredibly restrictive law on aerial photography. So laws like that are popping up as this footage is exposed. And then the third element that makes it more complicated is that the FAA has been really firm in its posturing of how journalists are not exempted from restrictions on drone photography.

Now, what’s reassuring to me is that as time goes by we’re seeing the top media outlets in the country and around the world speaking out against that kind of position. The only case where a drone photographer was fined had a friend-of-the-court brief signed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Tribune Company and just a laundry list of the top media outlets of the world speaking out against it. I think that climate is changing but you’re right, there are a lot of restrictions right now that I’m going to have to be very sensitive to.

One of your main issues is the way environmentalists and whistleblowers  are treated as domestic terror threats. Are you worried about bringing drones into the equation, and kind of encouraging that conception?

My career has been documenting overzealous prosecutions and terrorist rhetoric and crackdowns on nonviolent protests and whistleblowers, and in light of that, it makes me even more concerned about how an investigation like this could potentially be perceived or responded to. I certainly will be making every attempt to comply with the law: I'll be not trespassing, I’ll be complying with standards for drones and also not threatening anyone in any way. But I’m still concerned about how the industry will try to shut this down. I mean, I just logged in this morning to my email and saw a write-up on one of the meat industry websites about the Kickstarter, comparing drones to the Death Star, and saying that farmers shouldn’t be the subject of “drone strikes." Which just makes your jaw drop, because we’re not talking drone strikes. We’re talking photographs of pollution. I’m definitely concerned about some of the backlash.

That’s definitely the kind of thinking I was imaging the Kickstarter campaign might bring up. 

It’s also even just using this language of “drone." They kind of feed into that. The BBC has been using aerial photography around the World Cup and they’ve also done some really cool travel and wildlife photography, and they have been on record saying these are not drones, these are aerial cameras, or these are flying cameras. And I think that’s a very specific use of language, because say the word “drone” and people freak out a little bit. But that’s not what this is. This is just taking photographs from above.

Are you planning on investigating Idaho specifically?

I’m definitely interested in Idaho. I haven’t decided if Idaho would be an investigated state because they also have restrictions on aerial photography in place already. So I’d have talk with attorneys about what’s the best way in proceeding with that.

Would you say that’s where the censorship has been most extreme or unprecedented?

I think the response in Idaho has been some of the most heavy-handed that I’ve seen globally. The fact that this legislation was drafted admittedly by the dairy industry -- I mean, they’re very proud of saying they wrote ag-gag in response to video footage of workers punching cows in the face. And on top of that, they’re now trying to make it illegal to do all types of photography including aerial photography. I mean, these are really draconian attempts to keep the public in the dark, and incredibly heavy-handed. In some ways, they're some of the worst restrictions in the country.

So, what sort of thing specifically are you going to be looking for, or will you be able to see, with aerial photography?

We know that the real power of undercover investigations, that we’ve seen thus far, has been seeing first-hand the animal cruelty that takes place routinely on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. With aerial photography, I don’t think that’s going to be possible -- and certainly not to the extent a whistleblower with a pinhole camera on the farm would be able to document. But I do think that aerial photography can show the environmental damage being done by factory farms and slaughterhouses. You can see the waste lagoons and water runoff from cattle fields and other operations. For instance, these are facilities that, in North Carolina and South Carolina in particular, have been the subject of multiple lawsuits against the industry. Entire communities have been feeling sick and nauseous from the amount of fumes and pollution. I have no doubt all of those things will be able to be photographed by drones.

I don’t know how successful it will be, though. I may get some incredible photographs. Or I may feel that a lot of the time is just trying my best and working with this team but just not being able to deliver the caliber of photos that I wanted. It’s going to be an experiment and it’s frustrating that this Kickstarter -- I don’t want to promise more than I know I can deliver because this really hasn’t been attempted. For me as a journalist in particular, that’s part of what appeals to me about it -- just trying to see what we can do.

Are drones the future of investigative reporting? Have you seen other examples of other journalists doing this sort of thing?

I do. Not just with my Kickstarter, but across the board, I think it’s going become a staple of newsrooms around the world. They’re increasingly affordable, safe and easy to launch, and the possibilities are really promising. For instance, we’ve seen journalists throughout Europe use drones to document mass protests. They were used in Egypt and Turkey. In addition to that, we have reporters who have used them to document natural disasters and tsunamis and survey the scale of destruction and see what’s taking place. There have also been some cases where reporters in the U.S. have used them at the sites of big traffic accidents and things like that, which to me is a lot less compelling. I think that might even interfere with the work of first responders. I just think we have to be responsible with how we use this technology -- to try to use it to the best of our ability, and add to the story, rather than just use it because it’s a fun new tool.

By Lindsay Abrams

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