KANSAS CITY — Supporters and opponents of a proposed Missouri constitutional amendment that would protect the right of people to farm say it's unclear what kind of impact, if any, passage of the measure would have on the state's agricultural industry.
Missouri voters in August will decide whether to add the right to "engage in agricultural production and ranching practices" to the state constitution. The issue stems from lingering wounds from the 2010 fight over a ballot measure enacting strict regulations on dog breeders in the state, The Kansas City Star reported.
"People already have the right to farm in this state. Putting it in the constitution is sort of a silly thing," said Bob Baker, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "We're hoping it won't do any real harm. We don't believe it will."
Proponents say the amendment would give farmers more legal standing to challenge unfair regulations, while opponents are afraid it could unravel environmental and animal welfare laws and clog up the court system.
The Humane Society of the United States, a national animal welfare group, bankrolled the successful 2010 campaign targeting so-called puppy mills. The measure limited the number of breeding dogs a business can own and set new requirements for cage space, feeding and veterinary care.
After that defeat — and fearing future electoral showdowns over such issues as genetically modified crops or animal welfare — rural legislators and agriculture groups struck back.
"Agriculture all over the United States, not just in Missouri, is under attack from outside groups willing to spend millions to advance their agenda," said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation. "We need some protections from these attacks."
While state and local officials, along with citizen ballot measures, would still be able to regulate agriculture if the amendment passes, farmers would have constitutional protections against regulations that go too far, he said.
Opponents see the amendment as an attempt to protect factory farms and corporations such as Monsanto, and that passage would result in a flurry of lawsuits challenging everything from local zoning requirements to food safety and environmental regulations.
"The language is so vague that we don't know how courts will interpret it," said Jake Davis, co-owner of the Root Cellar, a farm-to-table grocery store in Columbia that operates a farm near Millersburg. "It appears it gives farmers the right to pursue any sort of practice they deem appropriate for agricultural use."
Columbia-based agriculture attorney Brent Haden said every constitutional right is subject to regulation, and the right to farm law would be no different.
"It's not that there can't be reasonable regulations of agriculture," he said. "What this amendment is trying to prevent are unreasonable regulations or outright prohibitions."