Opening Statements

Legislation in Oklahoma pits farmers against animal welfare advocates

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Oklahoma voters have more than one big decision to make this November. They will also face a "right to farm" ballot measure that, if it passes, would change the state constitution to preclude lawmakers from enacting new laws to protect farm animals or to regulate other farming and environmental practices.

State Question 777, according to its text, “protects the rights of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices. It prohibits the legislature from passing laws that would take away the right to employ agricultural technology and livestock production without a compelling state interest.”

The measure’s supporters include the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, American Farmers & Ranchers, the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, the Oklahoma Pork Council and other agricultural concerns.

John Collison, vice president for public policy for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, told the website AgWeb that “the amendment would protect farmers and ranchers into the future from outside interests ... that want to put an end to modern agriculture,” such as the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Sierra Club.

Understandably, SQ 777’s opponents include those groups.

“It boggles my mind that, as a state, we would consider enshrining any business in our constitution, with that kind of protection,” says Drew Edmondson, local counsel for the Humane Society of the United States and a former Oklahoma attorney general, who is embarking on what he describes as an education campaign to encourage voters to say no to this measure.

Kevin O’Neill, a vice president with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees. Animal welfare and environmental regulation “shouldn’t be taken out of the purview of legislators” and regulators, he says. “We don’t feel it’s the best policy.”

In March, a coalition of environmental groups that includes an Oklahoma City state representative, two farmers and the Save the Illinois River group sued over concerns that the measure would impede regulating, say, chicken poop entering waterways. Those plaintiffs challenged SQ 777 as unconstitutionally vague because the measure does not, among other things, define a “compelling state interest” such that the legislature could still act.

“And it could prohibit future legislation intended to protect our scenic rivers,” Save the Illinois River President Denise Deason-Toyne told the Muskogee Phoenix.

That lawsuit was dismissed in late May, but Edmondson says he’s feeling “cautiously optimistic that we will be successful” in November.

In recent years, Wal-Mart, Panera, McDonald’s, Costco, Target, Subway, Taco Bell and dozens of others involved in the food chain have made major commitments to improving animal welfare. Many of these companies have even set timelines for ending the use of battery cages for chickens and gestation crates for pigs, among other practices considered cruel and inhumane.

These promises have come largely in response to consumer demand—signaling that the public is now more aware, and involved with, how farm animals are treated. And so more and more companies will have to treat these animals better, to satisfy this interest.

They’ll have to—to stay in business.

SQ 777’s supporters are “trying to protect something that’s not going to exist in 10 years,” says David Favre, a professor of property and animal law at Michigan State University College of Law. “The world is changing.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Farm Rights: Legislation in Oklahoma pits farmers against animal welfare advocates.”

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