Is ‘Modern Farming’ a Legal Right?

A proposed amendment would enshrine the rights of farmers and ranchers in the Missouri state constitution.

Is this what modern farming looks like? Should it be protected by any and all laws by Missouri's state constituion? (Photo: Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

When Missouri State Representative Bill Reiboldt heard that I was calling from a California-based website to talk Show-me-State agriculture law, it was clear that he was initially skeptical of my inquiry. Even when I assured him that I grew up just to the north, in Iowa, he wanted to know what I did growing up.

Meaning: Did my family own a farm? Meaning: Did I have any grasp of the subject I was asking to talk with him about?

I was calling about a bill Reiboldt, a Republican lawmaker from Missouri’s 160 district, just south of Joplin, MO, and his State House colleagues passed last week. If the Republican-controlled State Senate approves it, the bill would put a proposed amendment to the Missouri state constitution in front of voters next November. The ballot would read:

 Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure:

            •          That the right of Missouri citizens to employ modern farming and ranching practices and equipment shall not be infringed; and

            •          That the right of Missouri citizens to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife shall be free from unreasonable restriction or regulation.

Reiboldt wanted to know if I knew anything about farming because he knows quite a lot about the agriculture industry—both as a politician and as a dairy cattle rancher. And he wanted to know because agriculture policy debate is, according to him, a conflict between urban and rural; between people in St. Louis and Kansas City, MO, who, as the Representative joked, wonder when all those fattened cattle will be ready to shed their beef (no cattle were harmed in the production of this steak!) and people who understand that “those animals are going to have their heads chopped,” as Reiboldt put it, apologetically. “I don’t know any other way to say it.”

Speaking thoughtfully in the slow drawl that lengthens the closer you get to the Arkansas border, Reiboldt spoke to me about the impetus for the amendment. “What we’re trying to do is to establish modern agriculture and farmers in the constitutions and give those of us who, I hate to use the word, but guarantee to give us the right to continue what we’ve done all of our lives.”

Although he made a point of mentioning Amish communities, where farming is anything but modern, the proposed constitutional amendment is less about the kind of agriculture practiced back when his Neosho, MO, neighbors grew and raised a little of everything and more about the current state of affairs, where one raises beef cattle, one raises turkeys, another eggs, and a fourth, dairy cows. This is about laying cages and gestation crates and biotechnologies and GMOs.

If approved by voters, the amendment would assure that “No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and modern livestock production and ranching practices.” That broad, strong language is defensible to Reibolt and his colleagues because of demand and because of money. “We feel like this will just head off something that could be coming that could harm what is the number one industry in our state,” he told me, alluding more to so-called adversaries like PETA than those know-nothing urbanites. “Is it really needed? I think it is. If these people were able to shut us down, we would be hurt economically in a way that would be unbelievable.”

And in regards to demand? That’s where a note of confusion or disbelief slips into Reibolt’s voice. Because the urban opposition to modern farming—if we’re referring to the industrialized model that contributes to agriculture being such big business in Missouri—is implicated in the issue they're fighting against, as the lawmaker sees it. “This [growth] has been asked of agriculture by people moving to the cities.”

If a sixtysomething white, conservative lawmaker from rural Missouri, like Reibolt, represents one side of this debate, Democratic State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, a fortysomething African-American woman who represents the most urban district in St. Louis, is on the other end of the spectrum. And Nasheed put forth a GMO-labeling bill in January. The bill, Senate Bill 155, “requires any genetically modified meat or fish raised and sold in the state of Missouri to be clearly labeled as genetically engineered as of Sept. 1, 2015.”

The Senator and the Representative would appear to agree about the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, and Nasheed, in a press release, reinforces Reibolt’s sentiment that people outside of farming have a lack of knowledge about the industry. “I don’t feel the trend of biotechnology and genetically engineered foods is always apparent to the average citizen,” she’s quoted as saying in a press release from earlier this year. The release goes on to clearly state that the bill’s intention isn’t to stop the production of GMO foods. “However,” Nasheed says, “I strongly feel that people have the right to know what they are putting in their bodies.”

In our conversation, Reibolt allowed that GMO-labeling is a consumer issue, suggesting that the amendment wasn’t designed to “head that off,” but he spoke glowingly of Round-Up Ready crops, the alfalfa he grows for his cattle in particular. “Genetic engineering is a tremendous technology that is really feeding the world,” he told me. And although he mentioned far less controversial technologies in describing the “modern farming” the amendment would protect, such as GPS, its difficult not to see GMOs playing a significant role here. 

Whether a labeling law like Nahseed’s would be considered unconstitutional if the amendment passes isn’t clear, but the kinds of laws that have passed in other states, laws regulating gestation crates, battery cages and various toxic pesticides, likely would be. Should the state constitution guarantee that no future farming regulations can be enacted in the name of preserving agriculture modernity?

That will ultimately be a question for Missourians—urban and rural alike—to decide.

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