By Jon Herskovitz
(Reuters) - For advocates, it is all about protecting a fundamental right of Americans to farm their land. For opponents, it is about big business, pollution and puppy mills.
Oklahoma's "right to farm" measure, which would declare agriculture as a vital economic sector that must be safeguarded by the state constitution, is dividing voters ahead of a November ballot and is seen as a bellwether for similar amendments in other states.
"All eyes are on Oklahoma," said Joe Maxwell, political director for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which opposes the proposal. "If we win here and defeat it, we throw cold water on a very hot fire."
The language in Oklahoma's proposed amendment may seem innocuous and tug at America's rural heartstrings, but critics like Maxwell contend it is a Trojan horse for agriculture companies and could lead to environmental devastation.
By placing a right to farm in the state constitution, critics say the provision could supersede state rules on items such as pesticides, pollution and livestock treatment, letting big industrialized farms sow destruction and trample smaller family farms that cannot compete with them.
Opponents also fear the measure could allow puppy mills and cockfighting to operate unchecked, because those enterprises could claim they are existing agriculture ventures that are protected by the amendment. A puppy mill is a business that breeds puppies for sale, often in conditions regarded as inhumane.
Supporters counter that Oklahoma's proposal, called State Question 777, would protect farmers from burdensome regulations and frivolous lawsuits, creating a healthy environment for investment in agriculture.
"Agriculture deserves extra protection so our farmers and ranchers can continue to produce affordable, abundant food," said Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, which supports the measure.
All U.S. states have some form of legislation designed to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits. Such complaints are often brought by developers of suburbs encroaching on farming areas who try to change local ordinances in favor of their new communities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks local laws.
The first state to elevate the concept and enshrine a right to farm in its constitution was North Dakota in 2012, followed by Missouri two years later.
But critics argue that the Oklahoma proposal would go further, barring lawmakers from enacting any measure that hurts the rights of farmers and ranchers without first demonstrating "a compelling state" interest to do so.
Maxwell, of the Humane Society, said the measures are part of a worrying trend.
"It is a national movement by industrial agriculture and multinational corporations to level out all rules and regulations to prevent what they would perceive as legislation that would protect family farmers, or the traditional farmers," he said.
Once the state is barred from meaningful environmental and livestock welfare regulations under a right to farm amendment, it falls to the U.S. government to enforce national regulations.
But federal monitors could be handcuffed because they often rely on local officials to help them in enforcement.
Protect Oklahoma Family Farmers, one of the leading supporters of the Oklahoma proposal, said the measure would in no way hand farmers a blank check.
Other supporters say the amendment is needed after states including California imposed egg production rules requiring that eggs sold in the state be from fowl with enough room to turn around and extend their wings in confinement. Such regulations, they said, raise costs for both farmers and consumers.
"We can live without electricity, we can live without gasoline, but no one can live without food," said Kelsey of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association. "Because of this, we feel agriculture deserves extra protection."
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Matthew Lewis)