July 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Ag industry seeks farming rights

Emerging battle could impact nation's food supply

'Agriculture's had a lot folks that's been trying to come down on our farms and tell us what we can and cannot do,' says Neal Bredehoeft of Alma, Mo., as he examines his corn for any evidence of Japanese beetles. (T. Rob Brown / AP)

Jefferson City, Mo.— In the nation’s agricultural heartland, farming is more than a multibillion-dollar industry that feeds the world. It could be on track to become a right, written into law alongside the freedom of speech and religion.

Some powerful agriculture interests want to declare farming a right at the state level as part of a wider campaign to fortify the ag industry against crusades by animal-welfare activists and opponents of genetically modified crops.

The emerging battle could have lasting repercussions for the nation’s food supply and for the millions of people worldwide who depend on U.S. agricultural exports. It’s also possible that the right-to-farm idea could sputter as a merely symbolic gesture that carries little practical effect.

“A couple of years from now, we might say this was the beginning of the trend,” said Rusty Rumley, a senior staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Animal advocates and other groups are increasingly urging consumers, grocers and restaurants to pay as much attention to how their food is raised as to how it tastes. Their goals include trying to curtail what they consider cruel methods of raising livestock and unsafe ways of growing food.

Those efforts are helping to fuel the right-to-farm movement in the Midwest, where the right has already won approval in North Dakota and Indiana. It goes next to Missouri voters in an Aug. 5 election.

The uncertainty surrounding the proposals stems from the vague wording of the measures.

Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment asks voters whether the right “to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed.”

Supporters hope the wording provides a legal shield against initiatives that would restrict particular farming methods, such as those modeled after a California law setting minimum cage space for hens or policies in Florida and Ohio that bar tight pens for pregnant pigs. Others hope to pre-empt any proposals to ban genetically modified crops.

“Agriculture’s had a lot folks that’s been trying to come down on our farms and tell us what we can and cannot do,” said Neal Bredehoeft, an Alma, Mo., farmer.

Opponents fear the right-to-farm measures could be cited by corporate farms to escape unwanted regulations against pollution and unsanitary conditions.