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