Castor beans and the effects of SQ 777

The following is a blog post from Oklahomans for Food, Farm and Family, our partners in educating the public on the facts of State Question 777. Learn more at their website,

Those lovely flowers you see above are castor plants. Best known for castor oil, which has been used in everything from medicine to manufacturing, castor plants — specifically castor beans — can also be used for biofuels.

They’re also deadly and illegal to grow in Oklahoma.

In addition to their valuable oil, castor beans contain the toxic protein ricin — a substance so deadly it’s been used in chemical and biological weapons. Just a couple of milligrams of ricin will kill an average adult.

The story of how castor beans became illegal in Oklahoma should serve as a warning for all Oklahomans about the dangers of SQ 777, which would prevent the state legislature from regulating agricultural activities.

From the Oklahoma Farm Report in August, 2011:

The Otoe-Missouria Tribe in Red Rock has partnered with a group of out-of-state financiers to begin working on a project to grow 15,000 acres of castor beans and then convert them to biofuels. The tribe has already purchased the grain elevator in Red Rock and would like to eventually operate 16 plants around the state, with 15,000 acres of castor beans in each area.

Castor beans are so deadly that one or two stray beans left behind in a truck, elevator or farm machinery could contaminate an entire load or even an entire field of wheat, corn or soybeans, rendering the crop worthless — not to mention dangerous to consumers.

Agricultural interests from across the state banded together and the legislature acted quickly. In April the following year the governor signed a measure outlawing growing castor beans in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t out-of-state radicals asking for this regulation. It was the Oklahoma agriculture industry itself.

In the case of food crops contaminated with castor beans, what you don’t know could kill you. The same can be said of SQ 777. There are a lot of questions about its effects, and none of the answers are reassuring.

If voters approve SQ 777, measures like the one outlawing castor beans probably couldn’t withstand a court challenge. The state would have to prove that banning castor bean farming is a “compelling state interest,” the highest legal standard possible.

Keep in mind that only 15,000 of Oklahoma’s 45 million acres were going to planted with castor beans. Would such a localized issue be deemed a compelling state interest?

Supporters of the state question point to that phrase — “compelling state interest” — to claim that the people of Oklahoma aren’t actually losing the right to regulate a major industry. But what exactly is a “compelling state interest?” That’s a vague and murky question, and we’ll look for answers in our next blog post.

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