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New right-to-farm laws protect Big Ag, not small farmers

ALEC-drafted legislations aiming to circumvent local ordinances on environmental protection and animal rights

October 9, 2014 6:00AM ET

On Sept. 13, a recount confirmed the narrow passage of Missouri’s right-to-farm constitutional amendment in the August primary election. While the amendment's language is vague, opponents fear that it will be used to overturn local and state environmental regulations.

The new wave of state right-to-farm laws is meant to stop environmental regulation and animal rights activists and protect industrial-scale agriculture. Across the country, supporters of right-to-farm laws are demanding that there be no restrictions on fertilizer use or animal antibiotics — even when they are used solely for growth stimulation and create human health problems — and no limits on puppy mills or crowding and caging of farm animals. These laws threaten not only the environment but also the continuation of traditional and family farming.

Backed by Big Ag and tea party property rights absolutists, many of these laws are based on language drafted in the 1990s by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank that crafts pro-business bills and pushes their passage in state capitals across the country. With these new right-to-farm efforts, they aim to protect industrial farming and its expansion, including takeovers and transformation of traditional farms.

How do the laws work in practice? In August a pesticide plane mistakenly sprayed dozens of residents in Gold Beach, Oregon. The state imposed fines and suspended the pilot’s license after the pesticide applicator lied to state investigators about what and how it had sprayed. The people who suffered health and property damage say that’s not nearly enough. They filed a legal action to challenge the unconstitutionality of the right-to-farm law (PDF) so they can sue for damages.

Unfortunately, Missouri residents would not be able to even file such a suit. Framing the right to farm as a constitutional amendment makes it different from a regular state law — harder to change and far more powerful in its impact. Missouri and North Dakota are the only states with right-to-farm constitutional amendments.

North Dakota’s 2012 constitutional amendment reads, “No law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.” Neither the state legislature nor any North Dakota county board or zoning commission can pass any law that in any way restricts agricultural technology. That encompasses technology from battery cages for chickens to center point irrigation systems drawing scarce groundwater to aerial drones that monitor farm fields. 

ALEC-drafted versions of right-to-farm laws are about letting industrial agriculture destroy traditional and sustainable and organic farms — and the land and water we all depend on for our food and our lives.

Traditional right-to-farm laws, which protected farmers from nuisance lawsuits by new, nonfarming rural residents, have been around a long time. As suburbs expanded after World War II, new residents sued, for example, to stop family farmers next door from raising crowing roosters or smelly pigs. In response, beginning with Kansas in 1963, all 50 U.S. states adopted some version of the traditional right-to-farm laws to protect family farmers who were there first.

In contrast, the new right-to-farm laws aim squarely at preventing environmental legislation that could protect human health, animals, land and water. They invalidate local ordinances and make it harder to regulate pollution, animal mistreatment and pesticide use.

Under the ALEC-written right-to-farm laws, anyone who sues, for example, an industrial dairy farm whose manure pit is emitting fumes that make neighbors so sick that they have to evacuate their homes, would not only lose the lawsuit but also have to pay the farm’s attorney fees. ALEC’s legislation protects current farmers and their operations under future new ownership.

Even more alarming, no local government could pass laws that in any way limit pesticide spraying or drift, zoning for large feedlots (concentrated animal feeding operations), standards for fertilizer application and runoff, drainage of wetlands or any other agricultural technology and practices. The expansion of ALEC’s right-to-farm laws means an end to local control and the stifling of local voices.

That is not all. These laws do not protect all farms. They privilege and protect large industrial farms at the expense of smaller, sustainable and organic farms. For example, this means that pollen drift from genetically modified crops may legally contaminate fields of unmodified crops and that pesticide or fertilizer drift may contaminate nearby organic fields or cause illness in humans and animals. And the neighboring farmers or residents would have no recourse in the courts.

Ultimately, the ALEC-drafted versions of right-to-farm laws are not about the right to farm or traditional farming practices. These laws privilege property over people. They make property rights absolute, not subject to regulation. They are about letting industrial agriculture destroy traditional and sustainable and organic farms — and the land and water we all depend on for our food and our lives. 

Mary Turck is an adjunct faculty member at Macalester College and a former editor of The Twin Cities Daily Planet. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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