Freedom of speech, religion, trial by jury and a whole host of principles are protected in the bill of rights of Missouri’s Constitution.
In August, voters will decide whether to add one more to the list: The right to “engage in agricultural production and ranching practices.”
The “right to farm” amendment springs from lingering wounds of the 2010 fight over a ballot measure enacting strict regulations on dog breeders in Missouri.
But what, exactly, will change if farming is deemed a constitutionally protected right? It’s a question without an easy answer.
Proponents say it simply gives farmers more legal standing to challenge unfair regulations. Opponents fear it could unravel environmental and animal welfare laws.
Some on both sides question whether it will have much impact at all.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the courts will have the final say.
“People already have the right to farm in this state. Putting it in the constitution is sort of a silly thing,” said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. “We’re hoping it won’t do any real harm. We don’t believe it will.”
In 2010, the Humane Society of the United States, a national animal welfare group vilified by many in the farm community, bankrolled the successful campaign targeting so-called puppy mills. It limited the number of breeding dogs a business can own and set new requirements for cage space, feeding and veterinary care.
Even though the legislature acted quickly to pare down the regulations, proponents still brag that the result was scores of breeders phasing out their businesses.
Following their defeat, and fearing future electoral showdowns over issues like genetically modified crops or animal welfare, rural legislators and agriculture groups struck back.
“Agriculture all over the United States, not just in Missouri, is under attack from outside groups willing to spend millions to advance their agenda,” said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation. “We need some protections from these attacks.”
State and local officials, as well as citizen ballot measures, would still be able to regulate agriculture if the right-to-farm amendment passes, Hurst said. But if those regulations go too far, farmers would have constitutional protections to rely on, he said.
“Farmers could go to court and argue that it goes against the right to farm and is unconstitutional,” Hurst said. “I don’t know how the court case will end up, but it’s one more piece of protection.”
To opponents of the amendment, led once again by the Humane Society of the United States, the real aim is to protect factory farms and corporations such as Monsanto. They worry it will result in a flurry of lawsuits challenging everything from local zoning requirements to food safety and environmental regulations. Additionally, they argue, it could stifle litigation targeting polluters.
“The language is so vague that we don’t know how courts will interpret it,” said Jake Davis, co-owner of the Root Cellar, a farm-to-table grocery store in Columbia that operates a farm near Millersburg. “It appears it gives farmers the right to pursue any sort of practice they deem appropriate for agricultural use.”
Amanda Good, Missouri director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the amendment would also likely result in dog breeders turning to courts to undo the regulations voters put in place.
“Every regulation is going to end up in court,” she said.
Supporters of the constitutional amendment say those fears are overblown. Brent Haden, a Columbia-based agriculture attorney, said every constitutional right is subject to regulation. The right to farm, he said, would be no different.
“Freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, these are all constitutional rights that are subject to reasonable regulation,” Haden said. “It’s not that there can’t be reasonable regulations of agriculture. What this amendment is trying to prevent are unreasonable regulations or outright prohibitions.”
Haden points out that the language of the amendment specifically leaves the powers of local governments in place.
Additionally, the Farm Bureau’s Hurst said, “Any federal regulations will clearly supersede this. Federal trumps state, just like it does in every other instance.”
North Dakota passed a “right to farm” amendment in 2012, and several other states are considering similar action.
Haden said as fewer people are directly connected to farms, well-funded campaigns to implement “burdensome and expensive regulations” become easier to accomplish. Enshrining farming in the constitution will help protect agriculture from such attacks, he said.
“These groups are well-funded, and they are willing to swamp people with misinformation and prey on ignorance to outlaw modern agricultural practices,” he said.
Good said the Humane Society of the United States, which spent more than $2 million on the 2010 dog breeding initiative petition, will work hard to fight off the right-to-farm amendment.
“We will be spending significant resources in Missouri,” she said. “Whether that includes money, I’m not sure. But we are already active in trying to get the word out that this amendment is not about protecting family farms. It’s about allowing agribusiness to write its own rules with no oversight.”