On a tense election night, when most eyes were fixed on the volatile presidential race, an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, animal welfare advocates and a spectrum of other organizations won a quiet, hard-fought victory in Oklahoma.
In a major setback for industrialized agriculture in the Great Plains, Oklahoma voters resoundingly rejected a “right-to-farm” question that opponents say would have made it difficult to approve any new regulations of the state's farmers going forward.
Sixty percent of voters opposed the question, a margin of victory of nearly 300,000 votes.
The right-to-farm question would have amended the Oklahoma state constitution to protect farmers and ranchers from any new local or state regulations that would limit their use of agricultural technology or livestock or ranching practices unless the regulations were deemed to be “justified by a compelling state interest.”
Both chambers of the statehouse overwhelmingly approved putting the measure on the ballot last year.
Johnson Bridgwater, director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club, one of the organizations that fought the amendment, told The Huffington Post that it would have had a devastating effect on communities throughout the state.
“It would basically put farming and ranching above the law,” Bridgwater explained. “It is that serious.”
The amendment goes beyond a right-to-farm law already on the books for several decades in Oklahoma, as well as in all the other 50 states.
These laws were originally meant to protect small farmers from nuisance lawsuits, but critics have said they have increasingly been used as a legal shield by large, internationally owned agribusinesses looking to avoid regulation.
Similar right-to-farm amendments were approved by voters in North Dakota in 2012 and Missouri in 2014, but opponents say the Oklahoma measure went a step further with its inclusion of the “compelling state interest” clause. It would have required any lawmaker in Oklahoma considering legislation involving ranching or farming - on issues such as animal cruelty, water quality or GMOs - to pursue it in court first, a potentially burdensome process.
The ballot question attracted a wide range of opponents, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes and even some farmers and conservative groups, such as the nonprofit Citizens in Charge.
Joe Maxwell, political director of the HSUS Legislative Fund, said that the coalition was key to defeating the measure by a surprisingly large margin.
“All of that together sent a strong message to the public to pay attention to this,” Maxwell said by phone. “They did, and they voted accordingly.”
The Oklahoma Farm Bureau, which led the amendment effort, expressed its disappointment in statements Tuesday. Bureau President Tom Buchanan vowed, “We will not waver in our commitment to ensuring our family farmers and ranchers can continue to operate without fear from outside interest groups and provide consumers with choice when they go to the grocery store.”
The Oklahoma Farm Bureau did not respond to HuffPost's request for further comment on the measure.
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Meanwhile, more states appear primed to seek right-to-farm protections in their own constitutions. Indiana and West Virginia have already introduced proposals, and other states are expected to follow suit soon.
All those state efforts might face a tougher road now that the measure has failed in what is an agriculture-friendly, reliably red state (Oklahoma hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1968). The amendment's opponents say their coalition has created a model for pushing back against environmentally harmful legislation elsewhere.
“I do think they'll be thinking twice before placing these types of initiatives back on the ballot,” Maxwell added.
The loss in Oklahoma wasn't the only defeat for agribusiness on election night. In Massachusetts, voters backed a landmark law intended to protect farm animals from intensive confinement in apparatuses such as veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages.
HSUS Oklahoma state director Cynthia Armstrong sees the two election-night results in two very different states - Massachusetts is a Democratic stronghold ― as sending a strong, unified message to the nation's so-called Big Ag interests.
“Corporate agriculture needs to recognize that people want their food produced in a different way,” Armstrong told HuffPost. “They want food that is humanely, sustainably produced and healthy to eat. The industrial model is an experiment that has failed miserably and needs to be reformed.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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