Missouri's Right to Farm: Analyzing the aftermath

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The good news is that Missouri’s Right to Farm amendment is now part of the state’s constitution. The bad news is that the message voters received might makes things even worse.

Voters in Missouri faced a seemingly straightforward question in this week’s primary election: Do they support the right to farm?

The answer was a razor-thin approval of Amendment 1, which enshrines that right in the state constitution. However, the debates that were stirred up by the controversial nature of the proposal re-energized anti-GMO activists, handed over yet more ammo to corporate farming haters and widened an already contentious urban-rural divide in a state where agriculture plays a prominent role in the economy.

Thumbs up Certainly, there was no broad-based support for agriculture’s right to do anything among residents of the state’s two biggest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. Voters in those metro areas soundly rejected the amendment, and post-election analyses pointed to concerns about foreign-owned companies, like the Chinese conglomerate Shaunghui International, plus lingering aversion to a number of farming practices, notably the cultivation of genetically engineered crops.

On one hand, the coalition backing the amendment, which included a veritable who’s who of the state’s agricultural industry—the Missouri Farming Bureau, Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, Missouri Pork Association, Missouri Dairy Association, Missouri Sheep Producers, Missouri Equine Council, Missouri Corn Growers Association, Missouri Soybeans—has to feel good that language strengthening protections for all of agriculture is now officially part of the state’s constitution.

The coalition spent a reported $600,000 just in the last few months prior to the primary, so one would have to consider that money well-spent. Plus, a defeat for the Humane Society of the United States, the biggest backer of the opposition, is always a good thing.

But I question some of the messaging from the pro-agriculture folks, claiming that this amendment was needed to protect producers and farmers from “overzealous environmentalists, animal rights advocates and foodies who want greater regulation of agriculture,” according to news reports quoting the Missouri Farming Bureau.

I’m not sure that kind of preaching even resonates with the choir.

A better approach

For one thing, a sizeable majority of consumers do care about the environment, many very deeply. We should all care about the environment, especially ranchers and farmers, whose livelihood is totally dependent on “the environment.”

In other contexts and on other issues (like animal welfare), the livestock industry has effectively framed the discussion by positioning producers as the ultimate environmentalists. After all, if the people raising animals and growing crops don’t take care of the soil, the watersheds or the rangeland, they’re damaging themselves and their businesses.

Yes, way too many self-important environmentalists are indeed wild-eyed eco-nuts whose zealotry utterly precludes accommodating the prudent stewardship associated with most of animal agriculture. But being “overzealous” is a crime of excess, not evil intent, and those passions can be reined in with sensible, collaborative policymaking backed up by good-faith partnerships between industry, government and environmentalists.

(Speaking of which, did you know that the Walton Family Foundation—hardly a group of overzealous environmentalists—has donated more than $71 million to environmental groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council, the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy? And that the goal of that funding, according to a foundation news release, was to “facilitate the formation of a coalition of environmental advocates, small business owners, and local governments” to advance watershed restoration and resource protection, among other initiatives?)

Here’s the problem with hardcore messaging: When the typical urban resident hears the phrase “protection from overzealous environmentalists,” their reaction is generally somewhere between “Maybe they have a point” and “Darn right we need to be zealous about the environment.”

I defy anyone to find more than a handful of city dwellers who would say, “Right on—a farmer or rancher should be able to do anything they want. It’s their land, isn’t it?”

I’m exaggerating, but the preceding sentence is pretty much what a number of industry spokespeople have suggested and what many more producers and famers actually believe.

I get it. I understand those sentiments.

But in an election or a PR campaign where the goal is to win hearts and minds, in-your-face hostility is the wrong road to travel.

I’d much prefer the approach articulated by a commenter reacting to a pre-election analysis published on the Governing.com website that detailed Amendment 1’s opposing points of view:

“I am a farmer. I will never be first in line to beat the drum for Monsanto. However, for [a previous commenter] to say that GMOs cause cancer is completely off-base and shows the ignorance that is rampant among a staggering number of non-ag people. Monsanto is a necessary evil in this world. By 2050 we will have nine billion people to feed. GMOs will enable us to sustain that amount of life.”

Those sentiments are hardcore, too, but that farmer offered a practical argument that I believe goes down a lot smoother with “non-ag people” than raging against “overzealous environmentalists.”

Because given the impact having on global ecosystems from just the seven billion people alive right now, overzealous environmentalists are a necessary evil in this world, too. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator

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John George    
Kansas  |  August, 11, 2014 at 08:15 AM

As the originaal manure export hired by the National Environmental Training Center to develop the very first short course training on manure and ag environmental protection in the late sixty's, I have spent the ensuing forty five years helping producers deal with the environmental bureuocracy and environmental activists. In that tenure, I have preached that we all need to be good environmentalists. However, the first tenet of "being a good environmentalist" is knowiong what it is that you are talking about. In that regard, just being a "card carrying" but scientifically naive environmental activist is not a positive. In my eperience, the typical ag producer is fully supportive of "doing the right thing" with respect to the environment! However, when mis-guided bureuacrats or actiivists demand actions that aren't supported by good science and common sense, I can't blame them for resisting just as vehemently as HSUS insists upon vegetarianism. When naive environmentalists and bureaucrats insist upon environmental impositions that cost many times more than any resulting environmental benefits, every "card carrying taxpayer" should resist.

Vern France    
Idaho  |  August, 11, 2014 at 09:50 AM

EXTREMELY well stated Mr. George!

Richard Lasker    
Washington  |  August, 11, 2014 at 10:17 AM

Mr George & Mr Vern both seemingly lost perspective.... it might be because their ears are stuffed with the paychecks they get/got from the ag industry. As a 40 year consultant into the ag industry I have never once, not once, found farmers who "did the right thing environmentally" over doing the wrong thing for profit. Not once. I dare either of them, and the publishers and the author to make it a public challenge to follow what "a" grower does on any operation for a year and see. Growers cling to EPA labels even when the overwhelming scientific evidence shows environmental harm...growers continue to allow pollutants to run into streams and gulleys and rivers even when they know it is illegal, 35-40,000 finishing operations that the animals live the short part of their lives left knee deep in their own waste and the double or triple steroid ear tags are the only reason they eat: most would starve to death. Those waste lagoons... cheapest method for waste spreading...there are dozens that are way more environmentally and consumer friendly, that allow less groundwater leaching but hey, a buck is a buck right? No, peddle your "farmer is conscientious} bs elsewhere. That was a mistake in Missouri and they are going to pay for it. The truth is that if the stupid farmers would just actually DO the right things the consumer would be tickled. Instead its all about their profit.

just moved from IA to MO  |  August, 11, 2014 at 01:35 PM

Yeah, the everyday consumer has been real tickled by the increased price of food of organic/grassfed/etc compared to conventional. Trader Joe's is making good money, but not as much as Walmart. I don't disagree that profit (or in many cases, not going into debt) is often a bigger driver than environmental purity, but farmers need to clothe themselves too. And I don't disagree that it is a huge problem. But I will not blame it solely on the farmers. I'll take your dare. Check out www.practicalfarmers.org and check out the folks I work with, ones who are willing to sacrifice yield to build their soil, are willing to spend an extra $30+/ac to plant cover crops, and are willing to fence, re-fence, and re-plant their pastures to keep cattle healthy and where they belong.

MO  |  August, 11, 2014 at 03:12 PM

Mr. Lasker, It seems that you might be out of touch with the arguments that you make. You apparently have not been exposed to the present day farming operations where "doing the right thing" makes those, as you call them, "stupid farmers" more money, better yields, and higher quality meat and vegetables. It would seem to me that your "extremist" belief overshadows what is positive in the industry and people, like yourself want to continue to hold down the American farmer as an ignorant individual who cares for nothing but himself mentality, when in actuality, they are keeping the global population fed with increased regulation, increased tax scrutiny and people who want to do nothing but take their livelihood and wipe it completely from the face of the earth because of something you read or may have seen many years ago. Be careful who you call "stupid farmers" because while you still eat everyday those farmers still provide food for you to survive on.

Craig A. Moore    
Billiongs  |  August, 11, 2014 at 03:50 PM

And Richard is a prime example that proves John knows what and whom he speaks of.

kansas  |  August, 11, 2014 at 06:31 PM

Richard Lasker (CN) - Washington - The Richard Lasker, whose pockets are "stuffed with paychecks" from deluding his customers into believing there's some kind of mystical morality in Organic as "good" and Conventional as "bad", via his over-priced "natural" products business, Puget Environmental Group, Inc.? The Richard Lasker who believes All Farmers are stupid, vile exploiters & violators of mother gaia, driven only by their selfish greed? The Richard Lasker whose products can only be marketed by declaring competitors to be evil and their users stupid? That Richard Lasker? Verification found here: http://pugetegroup.com/true-sustainability/

August, 12, 2014 at 12:10 PM

Thanks for the expose on Lasker - it figures! Its always like that - the squeakiest opponents are guilty of profiteering from turning the public against modern farming while they claim greed is the reason farmers use the practices they choose. The common denominator is they all believe They are enlightened and the farmer is ignorant. They do not believe we know or practice stewardship even when the evidence is placed before them and emotion will always rule over facts and science. It is frustrating and demoralizing, but I will continue with my modern farming practices because I do know what is best for my animals, land, resources and children - much more than the activists and government! Good that Mo protects farmers from the endless battles these "enlightened" folks engage in. Its not about "doing anything they want". Its about being allowed to farm with approved practices without extreme opposition costing tremendous time and money. Most farmers I know are conscientious, community minded people and have no desire to negatively impact their neighbor, the community or the environment that they have lived in for often generations. People need to quit reading the crap on the internet and interact more with the ag community. Maybe go to the local fair and talk to some farmers. Many CAFO operators have kids in 4-H that show locally or have 4-H projects on display - so go talk to them and see if what Lasker says is really true! I was an ag educator and consultant for over 20 years covering 12 counties over 2 states. The picture painted by Mr Lasker of "factory farms" lack of care and filth is NOT reality. I can count on 1 hand the farms that I considered did a poor job of managing their animals (I visited hundreds)

California  |  August, 12, 2014 at 06:06 PM

You are all missing the true meaning of the "Right to Farm" policies. The "Right to Farm" is to protect us from the Richard Lasker's of the world who want to move next door to my farm and then complain about the flies, the dust, the noise and the fact that my animals have sex outside. The courts are so twisted by the Lasker's of the world that we need protection from his inane thoughts. The biggest threats to agriculture in the United States are the educated fools like Lasker.

Jim BOB    
August, 14, 2014 at 11:39 AM

I think that you, George, and Vern all have different ideas on "the right thing environmentally".

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