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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Okla. Farm Rights Bill Called a Deception

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - A constitutional ballot initiative that would "forever guarantee" the right to farm and ranch in Oklahoma will let factory farms set agricultural policy, a preservation group and state lawmaker group claim in court.

Lead plaintiff Save the Illinois River sued the state in Oklahoma County Court on Tuesday.

Save the Illinois River president Denise Deason-Toyne calls the proposal a "right to harm amendment ... a massive giveaway to corporate agriculture in a truly unprecedented way."

"Oklahomans have a right to clean water, clean air and food safety," Deason-Toyne said in a statement. "This 'Right to Harm' amendment strips them of those rights in favor of an industry that cares only about its own bottom line."

According to its ballot language, State Question 777 "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."

Opponents, including state Rep. Jason Dunnington, say Question 777 will hand too much power to industrialized factory farms and squeeze out small farmers.

Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, says in the complaint that Question 777 "would impermissibly infringe upon the rights of future legislators to solve unforeseeable problems posed by industrialized factory farms and yet-to-be-invented agricultural technology."

He says the Legislature's ability "to enact meaningful legislation that may be necessary in order to rein in future excesses in corporate agriculture or to protect future family farmers would be eliminated in State Question 777 becomes law."

Dunnington and his co-plaintiffs calls the implications of the law "breathtaking."

"Because laws rarely withstand such strict scrutiny, it is highly likely that future legislators and local governments will be hamstrung from solving new problems as they arise," the complaint states. "The policy and regulatory implications of such a comprehensive restriction are breathtaking."

Plaintiff Edward Brocksmith owns land on the Illinois River, is a co-founder of Save the Illinois River and a former chairman of the Oklahoma Scenic River Commission. He says he opposes Question 777 because it "would give industrialized factory farms near his home the right to expand and pollute Oklahoma waters," which would hurt his property value and "significantly impair his enjoyment of the rivers, wetlands, and lakes that surround his home."

The fourth plaintiff, John Leonard, grows organic fruits and vegetables on 4.5 acres and works as a farm manager. He says Question 777 would reduce his access to clean air and water and "would result in the closure of small farms, because small farmers could not compete with the ever-growing factory farms that would operate with near impunity within the state."

On the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election, SQ 777 unconstitutionally delegates policy-making decisions, is too vague, regulates too many subjects and will impermissibly prevent future legislators from doing their job," according to the complaint.

"For example, as China's hunger for cheaply produced meat grows, would State Question 777 allow the Legislature to prevent or limit foreign ownership of Oklahoma agriculture land?" the complaint asks. "If science responds to national consumer demand for cheap protein by creating meat grown in a Petri dish, could the Legislature forbid such 'meat' from being sold in Oklahoma without identifying labels?"

Dunnington said in a statement Tuesday: "I voted against State Question 777 because I believe it will prevent me from doing my job to protect Oklahomans in the future. Oklahomans deserve better."

Save the Illinois River cites a state report that agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting make up 1.1 percent of the state's gross domestic product and account for only 0.18 percent of jobs.

"Conversely, before corporations were allowed to own agricultural land in 1993, agriculture contributed to 10 percent of the state's GDP and 11.9 percent of all jobs," the group said. "Yet now the corporations are asking for even more power. If SQ 777 becomes law, corporations and courts - and not Oklahoma citizens - will be responsible for defining agriculture policy in the state."

They seek an injunction barring the initiative barred from the ballot, and even from being printed, for violating the single-subject rule, violating due process and the separation of powers, and for "legislative hamstringing."

They are represented by Heather Hintz with Phillips & Murrah.

Follow @davejourno
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