Grassroots efforts will likely push a recount on an amendment to Missouri’s bill of rights that favors the interests of corporate agriculture.

Artwork of a young boy dressed as an ear of corn, carrying a Monsanto flag.

Did Missouri voters just grant constitutional rights to Monsanto & friends?

On Aug. 5, Missouri residents voted on the state’s Right-to-Farm, Amendment 1, a new addition to the state’s bill of rights. The results were extremely close: 498,751 voted in favor of the new amendment, while 496,223 opposed it. With a difference of less than half a percent, a recount is almost certain.

Though the Humane Society of the United States donated $375,000 in opposition, the amendment had the financial backing of Big Agriculture and its deep pockets as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the secretive organization which writes legislation on behalf of major corporations.

That the bill came so close to defeat is a testament to the efforts of grassroots Missouri activists like the members of People’s Visioning, a coalition of diverse progressive organizations led by Columbia, Missouri, resident Monta Welch. MintPress News spoke with Welch and other members of her coalition as they rested from what they described as an exhausting campaign and considered what their next steps might be if the recount fails.

Welch explained that the conflict was essentially between large agricultural factories and consumers increasingly concerned with the sustainability and ethics behind the food they eat.

“This amendment was really designed to preempt giving consumers what they want and preempt any possibility of addressing an unsustainable system whether it be factory farming — a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO — or genetically modified food. There’s been a trend of customers and consumers saying they don’t want these kinds of products, but this is the ‘get bigger or get out’ style of factory farm’s response,” Welch said.

ALEC’s corporate “extremism”

For over 40 years ALEC members — corporations and wealthy backers like the Koch Brothers — have crafted model legislation which is then sponsored by the council’s specially selected legislators who are required to swear a loyalty oath to the organization. ALECexposed.org, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, features hundreds of model bills as well as lists of its corporate members, including agricultural giants Archer Daniels Midland and St. Louis-based Monsanto. Monsanto, along with Cargill — which has disputed its ALEC membership — were members of the Farmers Care PAC that formed to promote the bill.

Though all 50 states have existing legislation designed to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits, ALEC has been working to rewrite those laws to its specifications since at least 1995, when the importance of the Right to Farm Act model is mentioned in the council’s Source Book of American Legislation. That same language was incorporated into a longer model bill first voted on in 1996 and updated and re-approved by members as recently as 2013 (where it’s now openly posted on ALEC’s website).

It restricts farms from being found to be a nuisance as long as they conform to “generally accepted agriculture and management practices” as determined by state agricultural agencies. It also prevents farms from being found to be a nuisance if they adopt new technology, begin producing new products, or expand. Other clauses further complicate lawsuits by, for example, potentially forcing anyone making complaints to pay the defendant’s legal fees.

The Right to Farm model legislation is just part of ALEC’s overall support of industrial agriculture. In a memo released by Common Cause, ALEC reveals its “Agriculture Principles” and pledges to “remove barriers for agricultural production, trade, and consumption.” Further, the organization objects to “extremist attempts to establish animal rights as a public policy objective,” stating:

There are significant human costs to the animal rights movement’s attempt to destroy human exceptionalism and along with it our system of animal husbandry and tradition of pet ownership. Similar to ALEC efforts related to animal and ecological terrorism and environmentally corrupt organizations, ALEC’s principles include a commitment to transparency and honesty among these groups and their allies.

A commitment to transparency may seem surprising from an organization which shields its actions with secrecy and police violence. It might be a reference to the group’s support of so-called “Ag gag” laws that restrict the free speech of animal cruelty activists, including one which passed in Missouri in 2012 that forces activists to inform police of their efforts to gather evidence of animal cruelty.

A newer approach to the same goal is to amend state constitutions. Bloomberg Businessweek reported in January that in 2012 North Dakota became the first to amend its constitution to include the Right to Farm, and similar proposed amendments have appeared in Indiana, which will vote on it in November, and in Oklahoma, where legislators tabled the amendment until next session. In Missouri, the amendment included two sponsors who are ALEC membersTim Jones and Jason T. Smith.

Another sponsor, Bill Reiboldt, the Agriculture Policy Chair in the most recent Missouri legislative session, is known for taking donations from businesses like Smithfield Foods. Smithfield Foods is one of the nation’s largest producers of pork products, and Missouri is ranked sixth nationally in pork production.

North Dakota’s amendment specifically mentions the right to engage in “modern farming practices,” but that language was dropped due to what Businessweek calls “concerns that it appeared too narrowly aimed at benefiting industrial farms.” Despite that change, the amendment’s supporters seemed to deliberately court voter confusion about its true goals with even the amendment’s very phrasing.

Deliberately confusing voters

A farmer in a traditional farmer's hat and suspenders on a tractor, seen from behind.

Existing laws already protect the rights of farmers in all 50 states.

“We invited them to stand with small farmers and vote no,” Welch, of People’s Visioning, told MintPress. “And they’d say, ‘Vote no? I thought I was supposed to vote yes!’”

Voters faced a confusing environment, with both sides framing their support of or opposition to the amendment in the language of Missouri’s farming tradition. Even worse, Welch said, the language used on the ballot was deliberately misleading.

From the ballot in the August election: “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?”

But the actual language to be amended to the state’s bill of rights reads:

That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.

“The majority of voters don’t understand that the language they see on the ballot isn’t the language going into the constitution,” said Welch. While the ballot specifically mentioned the rights of Missouri citizens, the actual constitutional amendment does not. According to Welch, this difference is crucial, especially in light of the recent buy-out of Smithfield Foods by China’s Shuanghui Group: the amendment seems poised to grant Shuanghui almost unlimited rights in the state.

The deliberately vague language leaves it to the legal system to sort out the actual impact of the amendment. “Ultimately, it’ll depend on what the courts interpret Right to Farm to mean broadly, but given how the courts have ruled recently [...] the risk or the danger is that it gives [CAFOs] a degree of carte blanche. I think they will try to hide behind Right to Farm to engage in harmful practices,” said Wayne Brekhus of Democracy for Missouri, another member of the People’s Visioning coalition.

“As we know, corporations are equal to people these days,” said Welch. “Corporate personhood would allow a corporation of any size to say it’s a farmer or a rancher and that it therefore qualifies for these constitutional protections, no matter where it’s from.”

The amendment also threatens Missouri citizens’ attempts to curb “puppy mills” — abusive large-scale dog farms — which remain a serious problem in the state despite a 2010 referendum demanding reform. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, highlighted these issues in an Aug. 1 op-ed for the Huffington Post, which also accuses the amendment’s supporters of misusing federal funds:

According to campaign finance reports [...] the Missouri Pork Association, which receives the state’s share of national pork check-off funds, and its affiliated Missouri Pork PAC, have collectively sent more than $235,000 in contributions to Missouri Farmers Care, the Big Ag front group leading the ‘yes’ campaign for Amendment 1. Much of that money came in as the fight over Amendment 1 became highly competitive, with the “Yes on 1″ campaign realizing they’d suffer a major reputational hit if they lost the race.

[...] Amendment 1 seeks to enshrine into the Missouri Constitution a right for corporations and others to engage in any activities they consider ‘farming’ for perpetuity – whether it’s confinement of dogs in puppy mills or sows in gestation crates. Amendment 1 might also protect canned hunts and captive deer farms, which are a threat to native, free-roaming deer populations because of the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. [...] In addition to the use of potentially illegal check-off funds, the campaign for Amendment 1 has gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars from Indiana multimillionaire Forrest Lucas. In 2010, Lucas invested hundreds of thousands of dollars against Missouri’s Proposition B, which set standards for the care of dogs at commercial breeding operations.

As opposition to the bill grew to unexpected levels, another source of last minute support appeared in the form of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, whose recorded message “robocalls” arrived on resident’s phones on Aug. 4, the day before the election. Slay’s message claimed Amendment 1 was necessary to keep food affordable in the state. Welch called the robocalls a “secret bullet” held in check until the last moment, when it would be too late for opposition to the calls to emerge.

“It took away our voice to respond in cities where we expected to win and had this not have happened we most definitely would have won,” Welch said.

Fighting back

Despite an apparent defeat at the ballots, Welch praised weeks of difficult but successful “movement building” and voter education.

Sam Allison, another member of Democracy for Missouri, told MintPress, “We were outspent two to one and we have basically brought this amendment to a tie. So much credit goes to people such as Monta Welch who really worked this at the grassroots level.”

Seemingly disparate groups became allies to oppose Amendment 1. Mike Callicrate is a rancher and advocate for sustainable agriculture from Colorado Springs, Colorado, who helped the opposition to Amendment 1. Compared to corporate money in politics, he said, “we don’t have the resources to fight this kind of thing.”

“What we do to try to offset that power is we really have to focus on collaboration. For cattlemen groups and farming groups to align with the Humane Society is unprecedented. We always thought, ‘Well, we’re not supposed to like those guys,’” he told MintPress. “But when the Humane Society decides we can affect the lives of more animals by fighting industrial agriculture and factory farming, we are so aligned! Let’s work together here — we may disagree on horse slaughter and we may disagree on prairie dogs, but what we do agree on is that family farmers are better stewards.”

Welch emphasized the importance of teamwork in her coalition. “I remember trying to get word to other poll workers after my phone went dead and enthusiastic ‘NO-Voters’ not only lent their [phones] but actually ran by an office to help get an important and overlooked strategy relayed to other statewide poll workers. I remember the couple who, when hearing I’d run out of water and needed only purified drinking water for health reasons, went the extra mile to bring me some so I could keep working the polls.”

“The people spoke [...] in the face of all odds, with concerted attempts at intimidation, silencing, deep pockets all ready at the get-go [...] We had so many votes it automatically triggered a recount — it was a near-miraculous feat […] behind such a formidable machine,” Welch said.

Another source of hope were “so many good people ‘getting it’ about the ALEC language and many of them, from educated, wide-eyed rural folks and farmers to suburban and city folks alike, coming together to stand with the smaller family farmers.”

Not extremists: An ethical alternative

A group of chickens

Sustainable agriculture means better treatment of animals and their keepers.

Callicrate also called the campaign a success in that it educated the public and built greater solidarity.

“Like myself, a rancher, a person of the meat business, a farmer, [was] willing to travel to Missouri to say ‘Look we’re all in this together,” he said. “This ballot initiative in Missouri had the effect of doing a lot of educating. And once you know [ALEC] you can’t not know it. This is a big deal — even though we lost in Missouri, there’s a whole lot more people that know what’s going on.”

“This isn’t about Missouri, this is about the United States and the world being able to feed themselves food that they are happy to eat, that really considers [the well-being of] other people, the environment, and animals,” he added.

Welch further objected to ALEC’s attempts to frame its opposition as extremists. “I will probably continue to eat meat [...] I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not a vegan. You’re not talking to someone who’s extreme when it comes to the diet thing. But I do have health problems and I do know that a healthy diet is huge.”

She pointed out that some research even links the rise of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus infections to overuse of antibiotics in industrial pig farming.

When MintPress asked Callicrate why industrial agriculture’s business model depends on secrecy, he answered, “Because what they are doing is so offensive to people.”

First, he highlighted issues with pink slime, a boneless beef mixture used in fast food products: “I mean, if you could see the process of making pink slime, if you knew that the trim that went into pink slime was not tested for E. coli, that it was not clean to begin with. If you knew the process in making pink slime was not a kill step that would keep that product safe.”

But there are serious ethical issues with many aspects of industrial farming. “If you knew the way chickens were raised, if you knew the way people are treated in the big slaughterhouses on these fast moving lines. If you knew the way hogs were confined in gestation crates by the tens of thousands where they could never turn around…”

“I mean, obviously you want to keep the public’s eye off of that sort of thing that [this] model of industrial agriculture is so dependent upon,” Callicrate concluded.

Callicrate founded Ranch Foods Direct, his Colorado Springs meat packing facility and market, after major meat distributors threatened his livelihood by cutting him off from his customers. In the process of creating a local meat distribution alternative, he rediscovered the importance of community and sustainability.

“Our model talks about bringing people back to the land, getting more farmers to come back instead of this idea that we have to have fewer farmers because no one wants to do it. Well, obviously, who does want to be part of an industrial model of agriculture?” he asked. “It’s awful. It’s bad for people, animals and the environment. So let’s create an alternative model of agriculture, which is what Ranch Foods is about.”

Unlike the industrial farms, Callicrate’s business is open to his customers at every stage of the process. “We really build a community around what we’re doing,” he said.

“And when you build a community around something you’re doing, you really involve people and all of the barriers disappear and all of the curtains get pulled back and there’s no secrets anymore because we’re totally transparent,” Callicrate said.

MintPress asked what makes his process more transparent. He said, “We’ve got our processing plant with a window into our retail store, so when you come in you can actually see the carcasses hanging in the cooler and see people working in the back cutting up your steaks and grinding up your hamburgers.” And, in contrast to the need for Ag gag laws, “We do tours!”

Callicrate explained the importance of every food consumer becoming involved beyond simply opposing harmful legislation, saying, “We need the eater on our side.”

“We need the people in the cities on our side because that’s where the votes are. We’ve never had a smaller farming community in the history of our country and it’s getting smaller every day. [...] I see [consumers] becoming less trusting of their food. Asking more questions. Learning how they can support their local agriculture. It may not be a farmers’ market but it might be going to a restaurant and asking where their food comes from. It’s really an education program for consumers.”

Education is crucial because corporations appropriate the language of the ethical food movement. “We’ve got Tyson Foods giving themselves sustainability awards,” he quipped.

He suggested that consumers “get with your slow food group, your farmers’ union folks, join the Humane Society. Support the work of these organizations that have now decided to collaborate. This is a big deal: How are we going to feed ourselves? How are we going to sequester more carbon with our farming operation instead of producing more?”

Moreover, he said this sustainable model could be expanded to feed the country.

“And we can support America in a much more prosperous way,” he said. “Because my model is about feeding my community. I don’t want to be in St. Louis, I want to be in the front range of Colorado, that’s my community. When I can produce it here, sell it here, and keep the money here all of a sudden we’ve now created a lot of good paying jobs. It’s about an economy that feeds itself instead of feeding a foreign corporation. This can be replicated.”

Originally published at MintPress News.

Monsanto soldier image by Thierry Ehrmann released under a Creative Commons license.

Farmer photograph by Doug Graham released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

Chickens photograph by Katie Brady released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.