Right to Farm or Right to Harm
Let’s count the ways that our political adversaries try to thwart progress to help farm animals. They work hard to pass ag-gag laws to make it a crime to take pictures of animals on farms or to conduct undercover investigations. They work in Congress, with Rep. Steve King as their leader, to try to preempt state animal welfare laws that prohibit some of the worst abuses in factory farming. They seek to increase the degree of difficulty in qualifying ballot initiatives to help farm animals or other animals – either by raising the total number of signatures needed or by imposing an onerous distribution requirement – to block any future measures we might undertake.
One of their latest gambits are the so-called “right to farm” measures now moving through some Midwest state legislatures and headed for the ballot or into law in others.
After trying to block all ballot measures related to animal welfare in 2002 – the same year we had an anti-cockfighting measure on the ballot – Oklahoma lawmakers are now seeking to place a measure on the November ballot that would guarantee that “the rights of farmers and ranchers to engage in modern farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.” The measure goes on to say, “The Legislature shall pass no law which abridges the rights of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and modern livestock production and ranching practices.” North Dakota voters approved a similar measure in November 2012, and Missouri voters will have a nearly identical measure on the ballot later in the year.
No other industry is afforded such an unreasonable blanket protection in any state. Why should farming practices -- which for good reasons ought to be the subject of unending innovation and improvements -- be locked in place from a legal perspective, in a fashion that precludes voters or legislators from enacting reasonable standards that reflect our core values in society?
Has animal agribusiness been such a remarkable upstanding corporate citizen that its practices are beyond reproach? Some players within the industry confine animals to the point of immobilizing them for their entire lives. Others release enormous amounts of untreated animal waste into their communities. Others lace feed and water with antibiotics, threatening to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria that could have dangerous consequences to the health of people throughout the nation.
This is not the kind of track record that warrants a policy response to forever inhibit state legislative standards. The “Right to Farm” constitutional amendment will not allow Missouri or Oklahoma legislators to impose common sense environmental and animal welfare controls on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Lawmakers will have no recourse to make sure that industrial farms don’t pollute our water, or to keep multinational corporations from bullying family farmers and driving them out of business. Or what about foreign corporations buying up farms and then doing whatever they want with the constitutional protections enshrined in law with “right to farm?” As an example, do we want foreign officials calling the shots on pig farms and chicken farms owned by the company or contracting with the company, in Oklahoma or Missouri?
And what happens if a giant hog farm wants to open near a new community development, or near a scenic trail or a high-use river? Can the state not step in and balance the interests? And who will decide what types of modern farming will be given constitutional protection? Will people have the right to farm horses or dogs for meat in a residential neighborhood? The result will be endless and costly litigation to sort out which regulations are allowed and which ones are trumped by the state constitution.
The Right to Farm measures are an unwarranted overreach by industries that want free rein, and don’t want accountability in our system of checks and balances. Consumers, government, and industry all have responsibilities to examine behavior and business, and the beauty of our system of government not only involves the interplay of these actors, but a continuous level of engagement between them all. To freeze the current policies, and to prevent legislators from touching an enterprise as fundamental as agriculture, is reckless and antidemocratic, especially at a time when the citizens of our nation are more interested in food policy than ever.
I guess though, that’s the point of their effort. They don’t want to hear from consumers. Just eat what’s on your plate. They’re not interested in what you have to say or what you want.