Agribusiness giants scored a victory in Missouri on Tuesday when voters narrowly approved a corporate-backed state constitutional amendment that critics say will threaten animal rights, remove checks and balances around food safety, and make it more difficult to regulate industrial farming practices.
The ballot question, which was supported by big-ag players like Monsanto and Cargill, asked: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural and ranching practices shall not be infringed?" With all precincts reporting, the measure passed 498,751 to 496,223 — a margin of just 2,528 votes, or less than one percentage point.
This makes Missouri the second state in the nation, after North Dakota, to adopt such a provision. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been promoting similar legislation in state capitols for almost two decades.
While supporters of the so-called "Right to Farm" amendment described it as "a way for us to push back a little bit" against environmental groups and animal welfare organizations, opponents said it would open the door for foreign-owned factory farming in Missouri and "strip most local governments of their ability to stop foreign companies from polluting and contaminating our land."
Joe Maxwell, former lieutenant governor of Missouri and head of the group that opposed the amendment, told Kristofor Husted of Mid-Missouri Public Radio that the amendment could shield factory farming operations from existing laws and regulations related to food safety, fertilizers and pesticides, genetically modified organisms, animal rights, and waste disposal.
“Those out here in the country, we’re just going to get screwed if this passes,” Maxwell said. “If this passes, those safeguards will be under attack by those who want to build large [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation]s in rural Missouri.”
The amendment was seen as a response to efforts by national animal rights organizations like the Humane Society to regulate dog-breeding operations known as "puppy mills." Some farmers claimed that such efforts impose burdensome regulations not just on dog breeders but on any farmers that keep livestock or poultry.
“We’ve seen an increase in efforts by what we would call activist organizations throughout the country and in Missouri to try to impose unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions on agriculture,” Leslie Holloway, director of state and local governmental affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, told Bloomberg earlier this year. “We’re taking the approach of trying to be proactive.”
But the Humane Society of Missouri said the amendment was "a blatant, intentional effort to lower standards in dog breeding facilities and eliminate animal cruelty laws that protect all companion animals in our state."
The Missouri amendment appears to be part of a national strategy, according to Bloomberg.
Much of the drive behind the amendments has come from big corporations. Members of Missouri Farmers Care include Cargill—one of the nation’s largest processors of beef, pork, and turkey—and Monsanto, as well as a long list of state agricultural industry associations. Some of them have been pressing for farm protections for years. In 1996, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a group that brings together corporations and state lawmakers to write pro-business bills, came up with model legislation that would expand existing right-to-farm laws to grant wide-ranging legal rights to farms of all sizes. ALEC’s bill, intended as a template for state politicians, voided local farm ordinances and made it harder to lodge complaints about animal mistreatment, pollution, and noise. Supporters and opponents of the amendments see them as the evolution of those efforts, taking farm protection, for better or worse, to the next level.
Sixteen major newspapers in the state editorialized against the proposed amendment.
Jefferson City's News Tribune said:
Although proponents’ literature doesn’t specify, the August amendment is a virtual “No Trespassing” sign aimed at pesky groups concerned with animal welfare, genetically modified food, use of antibiotics in livestock, etc.
The Kansas City Star echoed that sentiment:
But what the farm bureau, along with corporate backers and some (but not all) of the state’s agricultural groups actually want is a waiver from public accountability. They want immunity from laws designed to protect the food supply, the environment and animals. And they want a license to run roughshod over local communities that might seek a buffer from factory farms.
It’s important to know that the “right to farm” push didn’t begin in Missouri. It is part of a concerted nationwide effort by agribusiness and its political allies to give a free pass to corporate agriculture.
And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared:
This is the so-called “right-to-farm” amendment that is being supported primarily by large corporate farming interests and opposed by small farmers. So what’s the problem it is trying to solve? There isn’t one, unless you consider that groups like the Farm Bureau and the Chinese corporations that run massive hog operations in the state don’t like it when family farmers stick up for their own rights, or when pro-animal groups seek to rid the state of inhumane puppy mills.
In the wake of Toledo's recent water crisis, the ability to regulate industrial farming practices is even more important. At Al Jazeera, Chicago-based journalist Gary Wilson said that corporate opposition to new rules for farmers acts as a roadblock to reducing fertilizer pollution. “There is clear indication we are going to have to regulate farmers’ activities,” he said — something that will be increasingly difficult should the corporate "Right to Farm" movement gain additional traction.
Given the close nature of the vote, there may be a recount in Missouri.