Tulsa World: “Teresa Meinders Burkett: State Question 777 — Who needs it? (No one)”

Posted: Sunday, October 23, 2016 12:00 am

One of the biggest mysteries surrounding State Question 777, the so-called Right to Farm proposal, is why anyone thought we needed it in Oklahoma.

We are an ag-friendly state. Oklahoma currently has robust “right to farm” laws on the books. Our state statutes have protected agriculture interests for many years. SQ 777 would tie the hands of our ag-friendly Legislature, preventing it from enacting new laws affecting agriculture — forever. SQ 777 would give the agriculture industry state Constitutional protections that no other industry in Oklahoma enjoys.

So what’s behind this push?

Oklahoma law used to prohibit foreign nationals from owning land in Oklahoma. That prohibition was removed some years ago. Currently 345,000 acres of Oklahoma farm land are owned by agribusiness interests from China and Brazil. Smithfield Foods sounds as American as apple pie, but it is 100 percent Chinese-owned. Many more acres are leased to foreign companies.

The funding for SQ 777 comes from large commercial agriculture businesses — not from our small local farmers. Only 2 percent of Oklahoma’s agriculture production is by small farms — well over 90 percent is from large agribusiness interests. Like any business, these corporations seek the highest profits with the lowest regulation — and they’d like to treat Oklahoma like a Third World colony: exploit our land without regard to environmental damage, use our water without imposition of regulatory limits, and discharge waste from large confined animal feeding operations as they see fit, even if it destroys Oklahoma’s popular tourism sites like Grand Lake, Lake Tenkiller, and the Illinois River, and the watersheds that cities like Tulsa use for their water supply.

Animal waste contains high levels of nitrates. Nitrates are notoriously expensive to remove from our water — and the chemicals required to remove the nitrates certainly don’t improve the taste.

This is why cities across Oklahoma are following the lead of the Oklahoma Municipal League to pass resolutions urging their citizens to reject SQ 777. Once animal waste is introduced to our water supply with limited state regulation, the cost to make that water drinkable is paid — at a high cost — by our city and rural water districts. Then that cost is passed on to rate payers. This is a pocket book issue for every one of us.

As Tulsa’s Park Board chairwoman with oversight of our city’s zoo, parks, rose garden and golf courses, I know how high our park system’s water bill is — and SQ 777 will only serve to raise those costs higher — resulting in fewer park amenities or higher costs to you.

Several years back, Oklahoma outlawed cockfighting and dog fights. The cockfighting interests are big proponents of SQ 777. They just have to roll back existing laws and never worry about regulation again — they’d have a constitutional right to have cockfights. Or they might host dog fights using weaker, older dogs as “bait dogs” to teach the fighting dogs how to kill. This isn’t a state question being fought just to stop “puppy mills” — all animal protection laws would be subject to amendment or repeal.

If SQ 777 passes, agricultural production would become a fundamental Constitutional right, like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. North Dakota and Missouri are the only states that have fallen for the ruse known as “agricultural right to farm.” Other ag states like Indiana and Nebraska rejected similar state questions. Only Oklahoma’s proposed Constitutional amendment contains the dangerous “compelling state interest” language, which would limit the state’s ability to implement or strengthen water quality and conservation laws.

As John Ikerd wrote in Civil Eats, “Constitutions were never intended to give special rights to any particular group of people, but instead to ensure that no particular people, including farmers, are able to deny the inherent rights of others” to enjoy safety, health, and essential well-being.

Any law or regulation that attempts to limit a fundamental right is subject to “strict scrutiny” and must be as narrowly written as possible to achieve the compelling state interest that justifies the regulation, but no more. “Right to farm” is a vague term. There have been years of litigation to define the rights of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. How many years of lawsuits will it take to define “right to farm”? Too many. And it will take money that could be far better used in our schools or healthcare system.

This SQ 777 is very simply a law we don’t need — and one we can’t afford.

Teresa Meinders Burkett is a Tulsa attorney and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces from board members appear in this space each week.