Big Ag’s ‘Right to Farm’ Victory Not Such a Big Win

Missouri’s new constitutional amendment appears headed for a recount.

(Photo: Alfonso Cacciola/Getty Images)

Aug 7, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

How would you have voted on Missouri’s Amendment 1? Here’s how the question appeared on Tuesday’s ballot: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?”

Sounds innocuous enough, right? A little puzzling, true, but heck, why not enshrine the age-old practice of farming in the state constitution? At the very least, it seems to be not much more than a feel-good gesture, like designating the jumping jack as the official state exercise (which Missouri also did this summer, in “honor” of Missouri native Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing).

But if your instincts told you the amendment sounded just a little too anodyne to be true—the political equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing—you’re not alone. Yes, as you might have guessed, voters in deeply agricultural Missouri (where I live) passed the “right-to-farm” amendment on Tuesday—but the thing squeaked by with such a narrow margin that it’s all but certain to face a recount. According to my hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Amendment 1 passed by just over 2,500 votes out of nearly 1 million cast, putting the margin of victory well beneath the threshold to trigger a recount.

Far from just a sort of golly-gee good-natured nod to farmers, the right-to-farm amendment is a shrewd political move to thwart what the agriculture industry sees as increasingly meddlesome state regulations, themselves born out of a growing consumer awareness of the industrial ag business model. Missouri Farmers Care, an umbrella group that counts Monsanto and Cargill among its members, has spent more than $650,000 in support of the amendment; opposition groups spent $400,000, much of which came from the Humane Society of the United States, according to The New York Times. It’s a counterresponse to regulatory measures such as the 2008 voter-approved initiative in California that requires more living space for laying hens, or to the outright ban on GMO crops one county in Oregon passed in May.

“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,” Missouri state Rep. Bill Reiboldt told TakePart Food Editor Willy Blackmore last year, after the Missouri house passed Reiboldt’s bill to put the amendment on the ballot. “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.”

It’s clear that by “these people,” Reiboldt means interloper activist organizations such as PETA and the Humane Society, which have campaigned against the deplorable conditions at many factory farms, and which many rural farmers, like the state rep, see as composed of clueless urbanites who want their cheap burgers and their happy cows—and who don’t understand that, in his words, “genetic engineering is a tremendous technology that is really feeding the world.”

Indeed, such a geographic split was clearly evident in Tuesday’s election results, with the amendment passing handily in most of Missouri’s rural counties; those votes were countered by defeat in the state’s urban centers, including St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia. But even leaving aside the question of whether “urban” consumers should have at least some say in how their food is grown and raised, what’s interesting (and heartening) about the debate over Amendment 1 is not only that it signals a public that is more engaged with questions surrounding sustainable agriculture, but that the debate over the future of farming in America is playing out among rural farmers themselves.

“This [amendment] is an unnecessary corporate takeover of our state constitution that forever guarantees the rights of corporations to write their own rules and bypass democracy and local control.” That’s not some radical left-wing activist from downtown St. Louis talking to the Post-Dispatch but livestock and grain farmer Rhonda Perry from Howard County in central Missouri.

Or as Darvin Bentlage, a cattleman and farmer in southwest Missouri’s Barton County, put it to The New York Times before the vote last weekend, “One thing’s for sure—[this amendment is] going to put ag culture above everybody else. We’re going to be a different class of people. You won’t be able to complain about anything that we do. That should never be the case.”

Whether that will be the case, even if the amendment survives the expected recount, is open to debate. So far, only North Dakota has passed a similar amendment, and legal experts say it won’t be until lawsuits are filed and state courts begin interpreting what constitutes an “infringement” on the constitutional right to farm that the impact of such an amendment can be assessed.

Even as the fate of Amendment 1 appears to hang in the balance, what’s clear is that grassroots efforts to challenge the environmental and public health ramifications of industrial-scale agriculture have put the industry on the defensive. You may not have voted in Missouri on Tuesday, but don’t be surprised if a similar right-to-farm measure pops up sometime soon on a ballot near you.