After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Explain how the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act relates to the concept of commodity fetishism.
- Critique the ways in which the law differentially upholds corporate, animal, and small-scale farmers’s rights.
- Describe some of the ethical dimensions of animal agriculture under industrial capitalism.
For seven weeks in 2020, a man who asked to be identified as Elijah worked as a hog farm technician in a barn owned by Paragon farms in Putnam, Ontario. Elijah was hired by Animal Justice, a Canadian animal law advocacy group. The footage that was eventually shared by the CTV television network’s news magazine, W5, showed disturbing images of farm workers forcefully slapping and hitting pigs with plastic boards and jabbing them with pens. Other footage showed workers discussing how pregnant sows had been deprived of drinking water for several days, workers castrating male piglets without the use of painkillers, and unsanitary conditions in the barn. While organizations like Animal Justice are demanding more transparency in the system and greater provincial oversight, the government of Ontario has taken measures to protect farmers from these types of investigations. On December 5, 2020, Bill 156 entered into force in the province of Ontario, implementing the Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act. The Act’s stated purpose is to:
Prohibit trespassing on farms and other properties on which farm animals are located and to prohibit other interferences with farm animals in order to eliminate or reduce the unique risks that are created when individuals trespass on those properties or interfere with farm animals, including the risk of exposing farm animals to disease and stress as well as the risk of introducing contaminants into the food supply.
The Act goes on to describe its purpose as protecting farm animals and the safety of farmers, workers at production facilities, and drivers transporting farm animals. It also indicates that the law is designed to prevent “any adverse effects of these risks on Ontario’s economy overall.” Laws of this kind are also effective in preventing proprietary information and trade secrets from being leaked. For these reasons, some see these measures as necessary to protect the industry and its contribution to the Ontario economy. Alternatively, see the Act as a measure to protect the industry from public criticism and the economic impacts that such scrutiny might have on farm businesses.
The Act raises many questions among both its supporters and its critics. Whether it can accomplish the stated intentions of animal and farmer welfare is being challenged by activists who see it as a pretence to keep certain practices away from public view. They see the criminalization of exposing practices on farms as a decision that protects corporate agriculture. Supporters of the Act, on the other hand, claim that it will protect human and animal health. However, because farm practices are far from a uniform set of behaviours, a questions arises as to how the interests of both large, industrial farms and small-scale farms are protected? The concept of can be helpful in explaining why the Act is seen by some as a measure to reinforce industrialized, large-scale meat production.
Commodity fetishism is a concept that describes the relationship between production and exchange under capitalism. Karl Marx proposed that this relationship no longer represents a relationship among people, but a relationship among things, i.e., money and commodities. Commodity fetishism describes how human labour is ignored or unaccounted for as exchange becomes the predominant mode of relations. Marx developed this theory in Das Kapital (1887) and it continues to be relevant today.
In the industrial food system, for instance, producers of food are often far removed from the consumers. The vast project of the 20th century now means that most people no longer live on, work at, or even visit farms involved in animal production. Production has also become highly mechanized, which means that less human labour is involved in farming. Commodity fetishism in this context summarizes the ways in which people come to believe they are not participating in the processes of animal production. Human labour is erased each time an animal passes through new hands. The animal is erased at each step because it has been transformed into a commodity; from, for example, a pig, to freight, to a box in a warehouse, to dinner on a foam tray. At each step, the commodity becomes both independent from human labour and its own pigness. Processing of animal parts into attractive packaging distances the consumer from any of the more unsettling aspects of animal rearing, slaughter, and processing.
In food studies, is a term that parallels commodity fetishism. It is used to describe the physical and cognitive (and some would include spiritual) distances created by the modern—and globalized—food system. Distance is enhanced by industrial models of agriculture that insert numerous actors between farm–level production and individual consumption.
For example, when it comes time for slaughter, truckers in Ontario transport all animals to one of just a few government–certified slaughterhouses. From there, meat is sent in another truck to a processing facility. After processing, it is likely sent to a distribution centre by another truck. Still another truck then brings the meat to the grocery store, where it is handled by a stock person, the customer, and then finally by a cashier. Often, there is no indication of the farm from which the meat originates, where it was processed, and whether it has been combined with meat from other farms. The consumer, by virtue of this processing and distribution chain, has no personal relationship with the farmer. Since the farmer has no relationship with the consumer, they are not directly invested in the consumer’s well–being. The lack of participation by consumers in the food system means that farmers do not have as much pressure to adhere to consumer demands for humane practices. As demonstrated by cases like Elijah’s (from Animal Justice), animal activism increases the level of demand for better conditions on farms and/or at production facilities. Commodity fetishism thus supports a perspective that the Act is a way to reinforce the tendency in food systems to strengthen a veil of secrecy, and to create distance between production and consumption.
Whose Interests are Protected by the Act?
The wording of the Act focuses on the risks of contamination and the safety of farmers and animals. The government’s rationale for the Act is to protect farm animals from exposure to disease caused by human trespass. It seems reasonable to prohibit trespass on farms for this reason; there are already trespass laws in place, in fact. The Act, however, also prohibits anyone from entering a facility on false pretenses, which means if an activist gets a job in a facility in order to document animal abuses and conducts an investigation in the day-to–day activities of their job, then they can also be criminally charged. In Ontario, investigations into farm conditions are only made if a complaint is received. The threat of criminal prosecution, however, means that reporting by undercover investigators or employees is unlikely to occur. The Act therefore reduces public scrutiny and is a significant move toward mystification in the industry. Further, while these types of privacy measures might be commonplace in some industries (like in technology to protect trade secrets), they represent a risky precedent in other cases (such as criminalizing the documentation of elder abuse in old–age homes).
Animal rights activists call the Act an . Ag-gag laws ban people from exposing cruel and/or unsafe conditions at farms and slaughterhouses. Activists argue that these laws protect industrial agriculture and undermine the efforts of ethical producers. Since the Act has the effect of limiting consumer knowledge about industrial practices, an unintended consequence could be reduced trust on the part of consumers, which can undermine the efforts of ethical producers. Many consumers want to make informed decisions about what they are buying, and the ethical treatment of animals is an important consideration. To illustrate this point, while farmers in Ontario are legally forbidden from slaughtering their own animals, many take special care to raise them humanely, particularly through pasturing. Many small-scale farmers bring their animals to slaughtering facilities themselves and sell their products directly to consumers through and farmers’ markets. For these farmers, it is important to nurture the relationship with consumers to create an environment of transparency, mutual respect, and accountability. Informal discussions with small-scale farmers engaged in direct marketing to consumers have revealed that personal relationships with consumers are a driver in terms of improving methods. This value is reflected in the price, but consumers who are able to pay a premium are often willing to do so for the reassurance that they are contributing to a humane farming system. In sum, the Act appears to benefit larger–scale industrial farms more than it does farmers engaged in smaller–scale, direct marketing operations.
As a concept, commodity fetishism draws our attention to the ways that the industrial food system can make invisible our connections to the food we eat and to the farmers who produce it. The deepening psychological distance between producers, consumers and animals can therefore undermine the best efforts to create a humane and sustainable food system. The Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act reveals many of the pitfalls in trying to balance privacy and safety with public accountability in the food system. The Act’s stated purpose is to protect animals and farmers, but as explained above, it could undermine trust in the industry by creating an environment that favors secrecy and potentially protects animal abusers. As food scholars, we must critically examine the justification for these types of laws and question whether they in fact necessary in achieving their stated purpose.
- Do you think animal production is humane and sustainable given the right conditions, including education, legal frameworks, and financial security? Why or why not?
- How do the rights of food producers—including the right to protect food safety and privacy—compete with the need for public accountability in the food system? Are the rights of certain groups of food system actors prioritized over others? Explain.
- What other examples of commodity fetishism can you identify in the food system? In small groups, explain how your examples illustrate the concept.
Bill 156, Security from Trespass and Protecting Food Safety Act (2020), Hardeman, Hon. Ernie Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Statutes of Ontario 2020, chapter 9.
Fitzgerald, A.J. 2019. Animal Advocacy and Environmentalism: Understanding and Bridging the Divide. 1st edition. Medford, MA: Polity Press.
Foer, J.F. 2018. Eating Animals. London, UK: Penguin Random House.
Marx, K. 1887. Capitol: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. London, UK: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co.
Pollen, M. 2007. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. London, UK: Penguin Random House.
Salatin, J. 2012. Folks, This Ain’t Normal. New York: Center Street.
Wrenn, C.L. 2019. Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
people who protest or otherwise work against factory farming, animal testing, or cruelty to animals in other forms. Many animal welfare activists are either vegan or vegetarian and work towards ending speciesism, which is the domination of one species over another.
the association of production, exchange, and consumption relationships with money and merchandise, rather than with humans; commodity fetishism disassociates human social relations from, for example, the making of food products.
the shift in population from country to city areas, often accompanied by industrialization and technological modernization.
in food studies, a concept used to describe the physical and cognitive space between eaters and the sources of their food, as created by the modern, globalized food system.
laws that ban people from exposing cruel and/or unsafe conditions at farms and slaughterhouses; they include making it an offence to gain access to agricultural property under false pretences, effectively shutting down undercover investigations.
any marketing practice that relies on direct communication to individual consumers, rather than through a third party (such as media).
the breeding, farming, and caring for farm animals such as chickens, cattle, dogs, sheep and horses.