Note: This is an expanded and revised version of a column that appeared in the Journal Record.
Vote Yes on State Question 777 or else more Oklahoma children and seniors will go hungry?
That’s the highly misleading message that supporters of the so-called Right to Farm amendment are asking Oklahoma voters to swallow.
The campaign for this amendment is being sponsored primarily by the Farm Bureau and other major agribusiness associations. If approved in November, SQ 777 would entrench in the state Constitution the right to engage in far-ranging agricultural practices. The Oklahoma Legislature and local governments would not be allowed to make any new laws regulating the use of agricultural technology, livestock procedures, or ranching practices unless they could be shown to serve a “compelling state interest” and meet a legal standard of “strict scrutiny.”
Strict scrutiny is the very highest level of constitutional restriction — one that’s currently reserved for laws that discriminate on the basis of race or deprive people of fundamental rights like free speech, gun ownership, or freedom of religion.
Why should the ability of our democratically-elected Legislature and city councils to regulate agricultural practices that affect our soil, water, air, and animals be so severely constrained? A recent Facebook post from the Yes on 777 campaign attempted to connect their effort to troubling statistics about food insecurity. It points out that 24 percent of Oklahoma households with children are food insecure, 19 percent of hungry seniors are responsible for grandchildren, and 62 percent of public school students are enrolled in the Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program. “The Right to Farm Amendment will protect the ability of farmers to provide the safe and affordable food our families rely on,” the post said.
Clearly, Oklahoma is falling far short of ensuring access to affordable food for our families. The statistics cited in the Facebook post are troubling. Overall, about one in six Oklahomans, or some 650,000 individuals, grapple with food insecurity, which means they lack consistent access to enough nutritious food. Food insecurity is especially prevalent among children, nearly 30 percent of whom live in families that rely on monthly SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for help in purchasing groceries.
But how would passage of SQ 777 address food insecurity and hunger in Oklahoma? Proponents of the measure don’t point to any current laws that are hindering access to affordable food, nor do they identify how blocking regulation of farming practices would help alleviate hunger. Instead, they suggest that without SQ 777, the Legislature could at some point bow to pressure from the Humane Society of the United States and other “extremist groups” by passing laws targeting agriculture. In forums and discussion, SQ 777 supporters have pointed to measures like Proposition 2 in California, the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act, that requires egg-laying hens have enough room to turn around and extend their limbs. That measure was approved by California’s voters in 2008 and took effect in 2015, after an extended period to allow farming operations to comply with the new regulation.
SQ 777 supporters say a spike in egg prices in California is proof of the threat of higher food prices facing Oklahomans. Yet, as Brian Ted Jones of Oklahoma’s Kirkpatrick Foundation has explained, “the price of eggs rose dramatically throughout the country that year, largely because of the unprecedented devastation to poultry flocks caused by a severe outbreak of avian flu” (emphasis added). In California and the nation, egg prices have since fallen; egg prices in California are now on a par with 2008 levels, when Proposition 2 passed.
It’s also be worth noting that Proposition 2 was enacted by a vote of the people on an initiative petition; if a movement were ever to emerge to enact similar animal protections in Oklahoma, the people could vote to approve a constitutional change notwithstanding SQ 777. Until then, it stretches credibility to imagine that Oklahoma’s legislature will go against the Farm Bureau and other powerful agricultural groups to adopt radical laws hindering agricultural producers.
The Kirkpatrick Foundation has also compared food prices over time to see if the growth in industrial agriculture in recent decades has led to lower food prices. Their report suggests instead that prices for pork and poultry products are somewhat higher today compared to the early 1990s, increasing 8.25 percent on average after inflation.
To actually solve the problem of food insecurity, we need to take steps like strengthening the food safety net and improving wages for low-income Oklahomans who can’t always afford to buy enough food. Giving free rein to agribusinesses won’t help these families. When it comes to food security, State Question 777 is a red herring that Oklahoma voters hungering for real solutions shouldn’t swallow.