This past week in the Legislature, the public hearing was held on LR378CA. This measure, heard by the Agriculture Committee, would ask voters to amend the state constitution by inserting what has been popularly referred to as the "right-to-farm" provision. This amendment has been approved by voters in other states, namely North Dakota (2012) and Missouri (2014). The Nebraska amendment is crafted after a proposal currently working its way through the Oklahoma system and will be voted on by those citizens this fall. As I have explained in this column before, a constitutional amendment must not only be passed by the Legislature but must gather 30 votes and then be submitted to you, the voting public of our state.
As in other states, LR378CA has been offered in reaction to various efforts led mainly by animal rights groups and opponents of the use of bio-technology in agriculture to sponsor legislation that would prohibit the use of certain animal confinement practices or crop genetics. The amendment basically would ask voters the question of whether the ability of crop and livestock producers to utilize technological innovations and modern animal husbandry practices should be a fundamental right protected by the state constitution. The amendment would further provide that the Legislature cannot pass future laws that would restrict the use of these practices or technologies unless there was found a compelling state interest to do so. It was pointed out that using the latest technologies and practices allows modern agriculture to be more productive and use less water, fuel and other inputs and with less environmental impact.
Opponents argue that inserting this in the state constitution would sharply limit the Legislature's ability to enact laws that might protect water quality or govern the use of pesticides or other chemicals. Further, there was a fear that the measure, if passed, would favor large, industrial farms over the small, organic farms.
For most of us it may seem self-evident that engaging in agriculture is a basic privilege in our state. Keeping up with the latest methods and technologies are a necessity. Traditional methods of farming also are parts of the equation. Some may feel that recognizing this constitutionally is really not a big deal, however, there are large groups that would like nothing better than to portray today's farming practices as wasteful and harmful to the environment and to us all. Some of these groups have considerable resources and memberships who are highly motivated to impose a vision of agriculture that is naive, unrealistic and simply untrue. It appeals to some that passing a constitutional amendment "protecting farming" would make it harder for groups outside Nebraska to have an undue influence over farming in this state.
I understand the motivations and I do support the underlying principles behind LR378CA, but first we need to be careful and do no harm. There is a lot of speculation and assertions surrounding this matter. Quite honestly, I doubt the doomsday predictions on both sides of the issue. I feel the introduction of this amendment at this time and the resulting campaign to ask voters to support it or reject it can only become a highly divisive issue for agriculture and the public in general. It would certainly be difficult to change the constitution if, at some point, the public were to decide that it ties the hands of the Legislature too much. It has been suggested that perhaps this whole debate might be better addressed through state statute. I am personally leaning toward exploring these alternatives before deciding whether a constitutional solution is needed.