Farming Right vs. the Right to Farm


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On August 5, 2014 Missouri voters headed to the ballot boxes for mid-term elections.  Among several issues, one that stood out to many was a legislatively referred amendment known as the “Right to Farm” Act.  The language on the ballot read, “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed?”  At first glance, the question seems simple; however, in just twenty six words lies a complicated mix of corporate interests, urban-rural tension, and vagueness.  This salad bowl mix leaves much to the imagination about how Amendment 1 will actually be implemented if the current recount establishes the amendment’s legitimacy in the Missouri constitution.

On one side of the argument are the farmers and large-scale agro-corporations that believe Missouri farmers need this amendment to protect their livelihoods from out-of-state interests.  A sentiment that rings even more true ever since the Humane Society’s attempt in 2010 to regulate puppy mills in Missouri with a 50-dog per breeder cap that really put farming groups on the defensive.

Farmers want to be sure that they have the freedom to implement practices they see fit for their farms, and they don’t want other people playing a role in those decisions – especially outside, third-party organizations. As a rural Missourian farmer told the New York Times, “Some of these city people don’t have a clue what goes on in the country and how food is produced.  We need [Amendment 1] to keep the outsiders from trying to run things.”

In contrast, opposition groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and Missouri Citizens for Change worry that the passage of the law will “strip most local governments of their ability to stop foreign companies from polluting and contaminating [the] land.”  With almost 40 percent of the food resources produced in Missouri being exported, there is fear that “protecting” Missouri’s right to farm will actually open the industry to large international corporations, some of whom already have a stake in farming practices (think Chinese corporation Shaungui International Holdings).  There is also concern that with the passage of Amendment 1, big corporations will outcompete local family farms and easily dominate the entire industry, leaving no room for small-scale farming operations.

The battles lines are drawn starkly in the sand between the two camps, and both have put in a huge amount of resources to make their side known; however, this feature of the amendment in and of itself is worrisome. Rather than being about the issues and their potential repercussions, this amendment has boiled down to marketing. WUSTL professor of ecological anthropology Glenn Stone said Amendment 1 “is intended to be a tool that [big agricultural corporations] hope to be able to use in court cases and public media to fight off any regulation and to fight off critique.”  There is no way to know how it will be implemented as of now, but it builds up power for agricultural groups to act however they please knowing they have a blanket protection in the Missouri constitution.

Regardless of what side of the agro-battle you find yourself on, the problems with this law run deeper than opinions about farmers’ rights to their livelihood.  In its vague wording and manipulative marketing, Amendment 1 swayed voters who had no idea what they were really voting for. It turns out that the right to farm was only a small piece of the political puzzle.  The positions that each side took represent nothing more than their hopes to build up ammo in the event that their techniques or farming practices are brought under fire – it doesn’t protect anything that isn’t already a part of the farming norms of our society.  Agribusinesses will not use Amendment 1 to ensure they can continue harvesting the way they currently are. Rather, they will use Amendment 1 to challenge any and all regulations that come their way – even detrimental ones like the uncontrolled use of antibiotics on livestock, irresponsibly polluting surrounding land, creating toxic farm areas close to neighboring populations, mistreating animals, and more.

Considering these aspects of the law, it becomes more complex than just a protection to plant and harvest crops when and how a farmer wants. The potential changes that Amendment 1 will bring about should raise concern in the general population because of the potentially negative environmental and public health effects the legislation could have.  People may be moving away from rural areas at high rates in Missouri, localizing power in the cities, while urbanites may be more and more drawn to supporting the “local” food movement, putting large industrial farms on the defensive, but that doesn’t justify adding amendments to the constitution that have the potential to protect large farms from any and all critiques against their practices.



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