Forget Ag-Gag Laws: This Summer’s Legal Fight Is Over the Right to Farm

State constitutional amendments and other legal measures would protect industrial agriculture.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When state legislators met to hash out new laws in the spring of 2013, farm protection or ag-gag bills were voted on across the Midwest and in agricultural states in the South and Southwest. The laws were designed to criminalize the work of animal rights activists and whistle-blowers who secretly recorded abuse or other unlawful activity in confined animal feeding operations or other farms.

While many of the laws didn’t pass—or were ultimately vetoed, as occurred in Tennessee—the legislative trend sparked a debate about what goes on behind the closed gates of America’s farms and who’s allowed to see it.

Now, some of the same largely conservative state legislators across the Midwest have taken a shine to a new kind of pro-ag measure: right-to-farm legislation, or state constitutional amendments.

In Missouri, voters will decide on such an amendment in the upcoming August election, and laws have already been passed in North Dakota and Indiana, the Associated Press reports. The Missouri amendment would declare that the right “to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed."

When the change to the state constitution was first introduced last March, state Rep. Bill Reiboldt told me, “What we’re trying to do is to establish modern agriculture and farmers in the constitution.” The amendment would “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.”

The sticking point—and the connection to ag-gag laws—comes in the bit about “modern farming.” Take Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, which was passed in 1981, long before the commercial introduction of genetically modified crops. The law declares that a farm “shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance” if it changes ownership, size, or crop or adopts a new technology. Like this new generation of proposed laws and constitutional amendments, the Michigan law protects farmers at the expense of communities or consumers.

The editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which did not endorse the amendment, writes that Blake Hurst of the Missouri Farm Bureau “believes the proposal will give farmers some extra legal protection in an era that has seen some corporate farm practices come under attack,” citing the passage of California’s Proposition 2, which requires more humane treatment of laying hens at farms that sell eggs in that state. The board argues that that is reason enough to vote against it: “The last thing Missouri needs to do is give more protection to an industry that already gets almost anything it wants out of the Missouri Legislature and Congress.”

In states where ag rules supreme, local politics are similarly ruled by the increasingly consolidated industry. With ever fewer, ever larger companies controlling America’s farmland, whose right to farm is being protected? The Amish families scattered across the corn belt, who have eschewed mechanization for centuries? The small, diversified farms that grow an array of fruits and vegetables without the use of industrial pesticides and herbicides? Or even the old-school corn growers, who still rotate their crops with nitrogen-fixing clover and haven’t made the switch to Roundup Ready seeds?

The language in the North Dakota and Indiana measures suggests that the lawmakers have little concern for this minority of farmers—the right to farm is being protected in the name of the biggest industrial growers. In Indiana, where the measure is a state law, not a constitutional amendment, farmers have the right to “the use of ever-changing technology.” In North Dakota, the right to farm preempts any legislation that “abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.”

The right to not adopt new technologies, on the other hand, does not appear to be a concern.