Study finds ag-gag laws erode trust

Most people unaware of ag-gag laws, and learning about them led to increase in support for animal welfare regulations.

Results of a new study showed that learning about "ag-gag" legislation reduced trust in farmers. This finding is consistent with previous predictions that have, until now, remained empirically untested.

Hidden-camera investigations are becoming an increasingly popular means of raising public awareness about farm animal welfare. However, livestock industries claim that such methods are deceptive. One strategy to curtail these investigations has been the introduction of so-called ag-gag legislation, which restricts the flow of information coming out of farm facilities.

A new study by the University of British Columbia said psychological research suggests that this approach may be counterproductive as reducing information flow often reduces feelings of trust. Researchers sought to extend these findings by applying them to a real-world, timely example and to determine whether the perceived intention to obstruct access to information erodes feelings of trust. Accordingly, this study tested whether simply being made aware of ag-gag laws might have a negative impact on trust in farmers.

“We found that most people were unaware of ag-gag laws and that learning about them lead to a decrease in trust in farmers and an increase in support for animal welfare regulations. Interestingly, we also found evidence that awareness of ag-gag laws negatively impacted perceptions of the current status of farm animal welfare as well as the perception that farmers do a good job of protecting the environment,” the researchers said.

The researchers found that perceptions of the current status of farm animal welfare were more negative among participants exposed to information about ag-gag laws than subjects in the control group. This effect was not limited to perceptions relating to the care and welfare of animals; learning about the law also led fewer participants to agree with the statement: ‘‘Farmers do a good job of protecting the environment (water, air, soil, wildlife, etc.)”. However, the law did not appear to affect perceptions of worker rights or food safety.

Taken together, these results suggest that blocking access to information about one domain of activity (e.g., treatment of animals) may cause people to form negative impressions of activities in closely related domains (e.g., treatment of the environment, etc.) but not in more distantly related domains (e.g., food safety).

Previous research has found that animal protection groups are considered to be more credible sources of information sources than livestock industry groups and that this positive perception tends to increase after animal abuse scandals. “It is possible that, in addition to harming their own reputations, individuals or organizations attempting to block access to information may also be bolstering the credibility of their antagonists,” the report notes.

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