Corporate agribusinesses have managed to convince voters across the Midwest to approve vaguely-worded measures that could have wide ranging impacts, from preventing environmental legislation against factory farms to allowing animal mistreatment in slaughterhouses. These right-to-farm laws are gaining traction in big ag states across the country, but opponents say they are nothing more than a continued “power grab” by corporate agribusinesses.
Oklahoma lawmakers advanced a bill last week which would put a right-to-farm measure on the ballot for voters to decide on in 2016. The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing a lawsuit challenging the state’s right-to-farm constitutional amendment, which voters narrowly approved last year.
A similar measure was killed in the Indiana Senate last month.
The vague language in right-to-farm amendments can prevent states or localities from regulating any number of issues, from pollution, pesticide use, or animal abuse, no matter how much evidence there may be that a certain practice or company is harming the environment. It also makes it much harder to stop factory farms from poisoning water or air quality with noxious animal waste, or even keep track of repeat offenders.
The foundation for the language that will likely be presented to Oklahoma voters in 2016 was based on legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative group that’s infamous for writing and pushing pro-business legislation. “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state,” reads Missouri’s constitution. Republican lawmakers have taken the template and used it to advance the causes of agribusiness corporations.
“Why wouldn’t you support right-to-farm? Especially in the heartland, we have such a great history of farming and it sounds perfectly harmless,” Adam Mason, state policy director for the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement which has been fighting similar measures in Iowa, told ThinkProgress. “We see this as another power grab by the corporate ag industry. Corporate ag is an industry that’s really trying to carve out protections for itself to just go on and do business as usual, polluting air and polluting water, with no repercussions.”
North Dakota became the first state to enshrine the right to farm in its constitution in 2012 and other states’ farm lobbies have picked up the same playbook. In the two and half years since the first amendment passed, similar legislation has been debated in a number of states. Only Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment, and Oklahoma may be next.
Richard Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union, told ThinkProgress the ballot language in Missouri was unclear so voters unknowingly approved the amendment.
“Because of the way the amendment was written and the vagueness in it, nobody could really say what that amendment was going to do,” he said. “You throw something like that in front of the voter, well everybody is going to vote for it. Why wouldn’t they vote for that? Farmers need the right to farm. Well we all have the right to farm — it’s not as though we were denied the right to farm by not having this amendment.”
“It really makes it difficult for family farmers to compete with these big corporations that are assuming control of the things we do, and not doing it in a good way,” he added.
Missouri Farmers Care, the group that pushed for the amendment, is made up of more than 40 businesses including Cargill and Monsanto, two of the largest agriculture corporations in the world. The group was able to convince voters the amendment was just an extension of laws already on the books.
Traditional right-to-farm laws, which were adopted by all 50 states, protected farmers from nuisance lawsuits filed by neighbors. But since the early 1990s when ALEC drafted the template legislation, corporate agribusiness have used legislation under the same name to push for more power at the state level.
In 2011, a Republican lawmaker in Iowa, a state that doesn’t allow ballot initiatives, introduced right-to-farm legislation which would look much like what exists now in Missouri. But Mason said that coalition of opponents successfully fought the proposal until it was defeated. Other states which have been impacted by the Tea Party movement and where conservatives gained power in recent elections have not had as much success, he said.
“I think the corporate ag industry is emboldened right now,” Mason said. “They’re continuing to try to game the system in their favor to ensure more and more future profits which plays out across the board, whether its environmental regulations or whether its nuisance lawsuit protections. The industry definitely has a strategy to chip away, little by little, at these kinds of regulations at the state level.”