Right to Farm Bill inspires strong support, rabid opposition on agriculture practices

Red Dirt Report, July 19th, 2016

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Right to Farm Bill inspires strong support, rabid opposition on agriculture practices

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY - Talk to supporters of the Right To Farm Bill that will be put before voters in November, and they’ll say the amendment protects agriculture from unfair regulations.

Talk to opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment, and they’ll say State Question 777 is push for deregulation by corporate agribusinesses.

SQ 777 – known as the “Right To Farm Bill” - would ban the Oklahoma from passing laws that would limit the “right” to use agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices, but opponents say the measure opens the state up far reaching legal repercussions, inhumane livestock practice and unregulated practices.

Written by Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt, SQ 777 is a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the Oklahoma Legislature from passing laws abridging a citizen’s right “to employ agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices” without compelling state interest.

The measure has been supported from numerous organizations, including the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, Oklahoma Pork Council, Oklahoma Cotton Council, Oklahoma Agricultural Cooperative Council, The Poultry Federation and more, but several organizations are opposed to the amendment.

The foundation for the language was based on legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Republican lawmakers have taken the template and used it to advance the causes of agribusiness in Oklahoma.

Worries over the amendment are that SQ777 would actually grant “legal immunity” for foreign corporations, pollution and unethical practices. According to the Kirkpatrick Foundation, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered as far as how little control Oklahoma citizens would have concerning agricultural and livestock practices in their own backyard.

PROTECTING AG INTERESTS

Oklahoma Farm Bureau President Tom Buchanan said the amendment is vital to Oklahoma’s economy and to protect farmers and ranchers from restrictive laws like California Proposition 2, which prohibited the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.

“We want Oklahomans to have the authority, opportunity and ability to say what Oklahoma agriculture looks like, not only today, but in the future,” he said. “So we believe that’s the compelling state interest. We believe that’s the reason to have it constitutional, therefore Oklahomans will decided what their state agriculture will look like now, and in the future.”

The Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association also supports the measure.

“Agriculture is a fundamental human need,” said Michael Kelsey, executive director. “You can live without gasoline and live without electricity, but no one can live without food. It’s no secret that there are organizations that want to mandate their ideals of how agriculture should be run onto the consumer. They try to push their agenda by mandating this through law.”

Proposition 2 in California is a perfect example of that, he said.

“In some cases, the proposition caused the price of eggs to go up 75 percent, which hurts the consumer, especially low-income consumers,” Kelsey said.

“This proposition does not undo current laws as of December 31 of last year. It does not supersede federal laws. Oklahoma farmers and ranchers are the original stewards of the land, and they take care of the natural resources, despite the laws. They do it because it’s the right thing to do, and they should continue to do so without being affected by special interest groups and their agendas that are based in opinion, not science.”

For Roy Lee Lindsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Pork Council, the amendment would also protect consumer choice.

“I think the passage of 777 would protect consumer choice by allowing farmers and ranchers to continue to farm or ranch how they see best,” he said. “It prevents folks from limiting consumer choice by preventing outsiders from telling us what kind of meat to eat, how that meat was raised, what kind of production is used.”

The fact that the general population, as well as an increasingly-urban legislature, does not understand the nuances of farming or ranching also poses a threat for unrealistic laws that could affect production.

“This protects a very small but essential part of our population from large populations that do not know about agricultural practices or what we do,” he said. “More and more, we are seeing an urban legislature that is far more removed from agriculture than in the past.”

WHY NOW?

While agriculture is a major industry in Oklahoma, it actually contributes less than 2 percent to the gross domestic production in the state. Opponents worry that the amendment would give the agricultural section more priority and rights than other economic sectors.

In addition, small farms have declined since the introduction of multi-national large industrial agricultural operations that moved into the state in the 1990s. Corporations like Smithfield – one of Oklahoma’s largest hog operations – is owned by China .

From 1990 to 2000, agriculture jobs in the state dropped by more than 70 percent, coinciding with the introduction of large corporate agriculture industry.

“The agriculture industry actually contributes 1.1 percent to the gross domestic product, but uses 53 percent of overall water,” said Louisa McCune, executive director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation, which published an analysis earlier this year. “We’ve also seen a dramatic decline in agriculture jobs that coincides with the arrival of corporate industrial operations.”

Proponents of SQ 777 say the question is a pre-emptive move to protect the state’s farm and agriculture industry from animal rights activists and would allow farmers and ranchers to do what they think is best, being experts in their field.

“The reality is that there are a lot of out-of-state interests behind this,” said McCune. “We could be leaning toward an extreme concentration where 70 percent of the industry is owned by multi-national corporations.”

Lindsey said the question, however, would benefit all agriculture in the state, not just corporate businesses.

“I don't buy that argument that it benefits corporations and hurts small farmers. If you look at every other segment of business, if you increase the legislation, the entities get bigger and the mom and pops get smaller,” he said. “Keeping regulations down benefits all agriculture, large to small.”

Currently federal laws do not exist that govern the way farm animals are raised. In Oklahoma, hogs, pigs and chickens can be raised extreme confinement like sow stalls and battery cages at the 266 concentrated animal feeding operations in Oklahoma, according to the Kirkpatrick Foundation study.

What’s more, Oklahoma’s legal definition of “livestock” means “animals,” and includes “any animal or bird in captivity.” For instance, Oklahoma has one of the largest tiger-in-captivity breeding operations in North America.

“What we are talking about is corporate sovereignty,” McCune said. “We are talking about corporations having total freedom from oversight and regulations. This is absolutely something that needs looking into.”

CHILLING EFFECT

According to the Kirkpatrick Foundation’s Education Director Brian Ted Jones, the biggest concern surrounding SQ 777 could be the legal battles and the three little words of “compelling state interest.”

The analysis shows this law would leave any farming or ranching measures enacted by the legislature or municipalities open to legal battles. In addition, any actions to instill “strict scrutiny” would also be limited.

Opponents say the amendment could prevent counties, cities or towns who enact ordinances to limit agricultural pollution from passing such laws in the face of litigation.

“This question gives agricultural operators the power to take agriculture laws into court, and this amendment tilts in favor of the amendment and the ag operators,” he said. “In that sense, we will see a shift in power away from the legislature and the people towards the judges, who will have final say.”

If a city, town, municipality, county or the state passes a law or ordinance governing any practice of an agricultural operation located in their jurisdiction, then they face an uphill legal battle.

“If a town wanted to take action to curtail abuses – say polluting the water or air – and pass an ordinance to protect their citizens, they would have to weigh how interested they are in passing this ordinance against how much money it would cost in a court challenge,” said Jones.

“Local government might not take action they otherwise would have taken because the price of litigation is too high.” The term “compelling state interest,” he said, could create what is called a “chilling effect,” which means people are dis-incentivized to act in their own interest or rights because of the consequences.

“I think it is likely we would see that happen,” he said.

The words “compelling state interest” tells Oklahoma courts they have to treat laws regulating agricultural technology, livestock production or ranching practices the same way they would treat laws that discriminate on the basis of race or limit the freedom of speech.

According to the analysis, “In American constitutional law, claims of gender discrimination are given less protection than claims of racial discrimination. So since 777 would give agricultural producers the same level of protection as victims of race discrimination, they would receive more protection than victims of gender discrimination. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a legal argument could be made that 777 values tractors more than women.”

Although Oklahoma is a pro-animal state and leads the nation in some of the most pro-animal laws, SQ could open the doors to unethical or cruel treatment of animals, opponents claim. For instance, Oklahoma passed a law that limits the operations of puppy mills, but the law didn’t pass before the SQ 777 deadline of December 2014.

Puppies could be considered livestock, so a potential puppy mill owner could invoke SQ 777, claiming right of livestock production.

Lindsey said that notion is flawed, and that the arguments against SQ777 are nothing more than sound bites and fear-mongering.

“Puppy mills do not qualify as agriculture. So that notion that this protects puppy mills is ridiculous and it's a sound bite,” he said. “No one in our organization supports puppy mills. SQ777 protects the rights of farmers and ranchers to engage in business as they see fit.”

I DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS

The measure to change the constitution to allow Right to Farm is a legislative initiative, meaning it originated in the legislature, not by a petition of the people.

Chris Webster, owner of Providence Farms north of Edmond, said he neither wants nor needs the constitutional amendment.

“There is nothing us small farmers need as far as protection from the state,” he said. “First of all, look at the large companies that are behind this – like large chemical companies and companies that are about altering our food. When I see companies like Monsanto backing a measure like this, it sends up red flags.”

At his organic farm, Webster raises free-range chickens and more. He worries that SQ777 would allow large agricultural companies to abuse livestock.

“Have you ever been to the large chicken farms? I worked in one when I was a kid, and my job was to pick up the dead chickens. I’d pick up a thousand a day that pecked themselves to death,” he said. “At those big feed lots, cattle stand in feces all day. Its animal abuse and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Others say the measure would protect the small farmer who wishes to raise livestock as free-range or within pens.

“If they wish to raise hogs outdoors so they can market as pasture-raised pork, so be it. I'm not in favor of promoting one type of agriculture over another,” Lindsey said.

“This would protect all agriculture from laws passed by people who don’t understand farming or ranching. We feed the world. We should be allowed to do that in the best way we can.”

North Dakota became the first state to pass the right to farm in its constitution in 2012 The Missouri Supreme Court is currently hearing a lawsuit over the state’s right-to-farm constitutional amendment, which voters approved last year.

A similar measure was killed in the Indiana Senate last month.

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