Digging Deeper


The coming food policy: right to farm vs. right to know

Most food policy geeks were very busy last week watching California’s Prop 37 lose at the polls. As our Abbie Swanson reported, food industry giants spent $46 million to kill the “right to know” measure that would have required companies to report genetically modified (GM) materials on their labels.

But just as interesting, to my mind, was another ballot measure battled out on the other side of the country in North Dakota. Voters there last week amended their state constitution to add a right to farm provision, which essentially protects farmers from any state laws that would change the way they currently work.

If I learned anything while covering labor issues and the so-called “right to work” laws, these kinds of measures are most often not well-defined by their red-white-and-blue shorthand.

In the case of the North Dakota plan – the first in the country – farmers engaged in “modern” agriculture could not be barred from using “agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.”

In plain terms: take THAT, Humane Society.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau, which championed the plan, said it was needed to protect farmers from those with “radical agendas.” The bureau organized volunteers to collect signatures after the Humane Society pushed – and failed – on a plan to ban fenced hunting preserves in the state two years ago. But the Humane Society has been successful in getting state laws passed elsewhere, including those aimed at chicken, pig and calf confinement practices.

“There is nothing more dangerous than half-truths and out-right lies designed to move an agenda forward,” said Doyle Johannes, the state Farm Bureau president who headed up the North Dakota Feeding Families Committee.

“We have seen what happens in other states when those agendas are made into law. We are thankful that with passage of Measure 3 it will be harder for groups with those agendas to gain a foothold in our state.”

For its part, the Humane Society took a subtle role in the campaign, not offering up any formal opposition. The North Dakota Farmers Union urged a no vote, saying Measure 3 would replicate laws already on the books and might be sued by those who would ignore good stewardship and conservation.

In legal geek (I resemble that remark) terms, what’s also interesting to me is that all 50 states already have “right to farm” laws. First passed in Kansas in 1963, these are intended to stop lawsuits against farmers for issues like smell or noise. To find out where your state stands, check out this cool map by the National Agricultural Law Center.

I checked with Beth Rumley, an attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, on the difference between these two protections.

“The ‘right-to-farm’ laws listed on the map are those that protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits by neighboring landowners,” she told me via email. “The North Dakota initiative prohibits laws being passed that limit modern farming practices.  Very different, legally speaking.”

Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist and opinion writer, wrote last weekend of his disappointment in the Prop 37 vote, as well as several anti-soda initiatives that failed. He seemed to suggest that if the food policy types focused on animal welfare issues, they might do better.

Sensibly or not, many consumers are predisposed against GMOs (genetically modified organisms); but GMOs are not exactly evil. A better choice might be a broader discussion about animal welfare. After all, Americans are also predisposed to treat animals fairly, and it could be that a struggle for transparency in livestock production would be more successful: mistreatment of animals is easy to prove, as are the many, many downsides of industrial livestock production. Of course we love our meat, and we don’t love our GMOs. And this is an argument that could go on forever.

We will see more and more of these debates played out at the ballot box as food becomes politicized. Who’s rights will trump another’s when it comes to something as basic as what we put in our mouths? Hard to say, although it appears that for now, it’s going to be those who believe they have a right to farm against those who believe that have a right to know.

What do you think? Should farmers be given constitutional protections to allow them to do they work as they see fit? Or is the protection of animals or crops more important? How will food policy play out over the next decade? Click here to share your perspective through the Harvest Network.