Missouri voters narrowly ratified a ballot measure Tuesday that elevates farming to a constitutional right, an idea that opponents warned will make any future regulation of agriculture much harder.
With every precinct reporting, the amendment passed with just barely 50 percent of the vote, a margin of 2,528 voters that will likely spur a recount.
The measure asked Missouri voters if the state constitution should be changed to “ensure that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices shall not be infringed.” By making farming and ranching constitutional rights, future laws -- and even existing regulations -- that could be viewed as impediments will be harder to pass or defend. Lawsuits are virtually guaranteed, but how far courts will take the “right to farm” remains to be seen.
Supporters, backed by the Missouri Farm Bureau, argued farmers need greater protection from the kinds of food or agricultural regulations that have gained traction in recent years, such as bans on the use of genetically modified seeds, labeling requirements for foods that include genetically modified ingredients, restrictions on dog breeding, setback rules and efforts to address animal treatment in large livestock operations. They freely acknowledged that pushing for those types of laws would be harder if farming were a constitutional right.
Opponents included smaller farmers, animals rights groups, sustainable agriculture organizations and critics of corporate food practices. They noted that Missouri farmers, like those in every other state, already have protection from nuisance complaints. They also noted that the actual wording of the amendment differed from what voters saw in voting booths. There’s no mention of “citizens,” for instance, which critics argue will allow multi-national companies to expand their presence in the state and fend off regulation aimed at more controversial practices, such as the use of antibiotics in animal feed, which has been linked to more drug-resistant infections.
“When the public decides it really wants to do something, this amendment would be an obstacle,” said John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agriculture at the University of Missouri.
Spokesmen for the proponents and opposition couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. Every major newspaper in the state opposed the amendment. Some argued the legislature’s job is to balance the interests of farmers, consumers and regulators, and a constitutional amendment abdicated that responsibility. Both opponents and proponents raised about $1.5 million, though it appears proponents spent more, at least in the final month of the campaign.
North Dakota is the only other state with a constitutional "right to farm," passed in 2012.