OKLAHOMA CITY – Could a $43 billion acquisition of the Swiss seed and pesticide company Syngenta later this year by the Chinese government-owned China National Chemical Corp. (a.k.a. “ChemChina”) potentially have an impact on agricultural practices here in Oklahoma?
Quite possibly, says Brian Ted Jones, director of the education for the Kirkpatrick Foundation, if Oklahoma voters approve State Question 777 this fall.
The reason is that Syngenta is involved in agricultural operations throughout the world, including the United States and here in Oklahoma, and that 777 would place in the state constitution a restriction on the legislature to restrict agriculture.
“It’s a restriction on restrictions,” said Jones, noting that if SQ 777 (also known as the "Right to Farm" bill) passes, anyone involved in farming, ranching or livestock production would get “the power to get laws that restrict their practices struck down in court.”
As Jones, speaking to the Bricktown Rotary Club on Monday, reads it, as written: “The legislature shall pass no law that abridges the right of citizens and lawful residents of Oklahoma to employ agricultural technology and livestock production and ranching practices without a compelling state interest.”
And meeting that high bar would be difficult. It would essentially be on the level of the state not discriminating against citizens on the basis of race, for instance, noted Jones.
“They [ag interests] are asking to be treated as if they were an historically oppressed minority and they’re asking for rights to use whatever technology practices that they want,” he added.
So, if the Chinese, who already took over pork producer Smithfield Farms in 2013, which has operations in the Oklahoma panhandle, have the ability to benefit from the striking down of laws passed by ‘We the People’ of Oklahoma, it will undermine the state’s democratic processes, he said.
And as Jones later told Red Dirt Report, the Chinese could view the freedoms that 777 would give ChemChina, Smithfield Farms and other Chinese-owned operations as a way to come into the state and “treat Oklahoma like a laboratory for ag technology.”
That is because the Communist Chinese government takes a key policy document – “No. 1 Central Document” – very seriously. It regards “the importance of rural reform, developing modern agriculture and maintaining agriculture as the foundation of it economy,” as reported at the Chinese news website Xinhuanet.
“The Chinese have an interesting problem,” Jones said. “They have a large population but the amount of land set aside for agricultural purposes is relatively small.”
Which means the Chinese are looking beyond their borders for other opportunities (passage of 777 would certainly help them) to fully implement “No. 1 Central Document” through a goal of being completely “food independent,” just as the U.S. strives to be “energy independent.”
But this isn’t only about foreign interests. It’s also about small-but-powerful domestic interests who want to hold sway over what they do – no questions asked.
“This proposal,” Jones said, “Will grant one industry, composing 2 percent of the state, an unprecedented power to override the voters, the other 98 percent of us.”
Then there is the issue of our state’s water, which is protected through the state’s regulatory authority. Because agricultural interests use 53 percent of Oklahoma’s water, there is the possibility that agricultural uses of state water could not be challenged when they otherwise could be challenged. It all depends on what the voters decide this fall at the ballot box.
Jones was asked by Rotarians as to why the ag industry is so concerned with the way democracy works in our state. He said that it was because state questions in other states, like 2008’s “Prop 2” in California, which sought to make it “illegal for businesses to confine farm animals in a way that didn’t allow them to turn around freely, to lie down, to stand up, and to fully extend their limbs.”
When it passed, it sent a shudder through the ag industry nationwide. With more people moving to urban areas and fewer people linked to the agricultural industry, they see their “politics are slipping away.” He noted that while scientific organizations strongly agree (88 percent) that genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s) are safe for human consumption, only 37 percent of American adults agree with that statement.
“This worries agriculture,” Jones said of the “gulf” separating scientific fact and public perception when it comes to agriculture.
So, if 777 passes, he said, it “will allow ag to freeze in place the political advantage they now possess, but one they believe is rapidly slipping away.”
Also, Big Ag (and small farm owners as well) feel threatened by a changing society and particularly by “pro-animal organizations” like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society who could introduce ballot measures restricting what ag can do. That is why so many organizations, including the Oklahoma Farm Bureau (who had a somewhat combative representative on hand to listen and comment on Jones’s talk) are pro-SQ 777, as we noted in this story in January. On the other hand there is "rabid opposition" to 777 as well, nicknamed the "Right to Harm" bill.
Jones briefly mentioned that in the proposal’s broad definition of “livestock” (which can be interchangeably used with the word “animal”) puppy mill operators and exotic pet suppliers could also challenge laws here.
In a piece Jones wrote for Tulsa Pets Magazine, previous legislation addressing puppy mills, for instance, could be challenged in court because past legislation would be grandfathered in, except only for legislation passed through Dec. 31, 2014.
So, for instance, State Rep. Lee Denney’s (R-Cushing) 2015 legislation requiring puppy mills not being able to locate within 2,500 feet of a school or daycare in cities with populations greater than 300,000 (essentially only Tulsa and Oklahoma City) could be successfully challenged in a world where SQ 777 is in the state constitution.
SQ 777, initially pushed by right-wing Republican State Rep. Scott Biggs of Chickasha, received a lot of support from legislators who approved it strongly enough to send it out to a vote of the people this fall. This state question has received resounding support from industrial agricultural groups and has been approved by voters in North Dakota and (just barely) in neighboring Missouri.
Rotarian Peter Fulmer asked if any other industry has such constitutional protections as the ag industry would, were 777 passed. Jones responded with a flat-out “no.”
Concluded Jones: “The problem with passing constitutional amendments is that you just can’t predict everything that’s going to happen.”