By Taylor Telford November 3, 2021
Maine voters approved an amendment Tuesday that enshrines the “right to food” — the first of its kind in the United States.
The amendment to the state’s constitution declares that all people have a “natural, inherent and unalienable right” to grow, raise, produce and consume food of their own choosing as long as they do so within legal parameters.
It was approved on Tuesday by 60 percent of voters based on unofficial results, according to Ballotpedia. The measure had been approved by the state legislature in May.
Maine, a state with a bustling agricultural industry, has been at the forefront of the food sovereignty movement, which envisions a food system where producers also have control over how their goods are sold and distributed. The referendum was meant to ensure local communities have more agency over their food supply, Heather Retberg wrote in the Maine Citizen’s Guide to the Referendum Election. The livestock farmer and advocate was a driving force behind the amendment.
“Power over our food supply is concentrated in a few individuals and corporations,” Retberg said. “Global companies dominate our food system and policy at the expense of our food self-sufficiency. This concentration of power threatens Mainers’ individual rights to grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food of our choosing now and in the future.”
Maine state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Republican legislator who sponsored the legislation, has called it the “Second Amendment of food,” empowering people to fight hunger and regain command over the food supply in an era of corporate domination. In testimony, another state representative who supported the bill called it “pure poetry.”
The nonprofit WhyHunger called the vote “a transformative step in ensuring the protection of food as an unequivocal basic human right.”
“It is our hope that this historic amendment and its protections — while long overdue — serve as an inspiration to states nationwide and further sparks dialogue and reform centered around ensuring the right to food,” Noreen Springstead, the group’s executive director, said Wednesday in a statement. “This is truly a critical moment for all those working to end hunger once and for all.”
But opponents contend the amendment is vague and could open the state to a range of food safety, legal and environmental challenges. The Maine Farm Bureau, the state’s biggest agricultural advocacy group, said its “vague and broad wording” provides “fertile ground for unintended consequences.”
Animal welfare and farming groups say, for example, it could weaken animal cruelty protections or allow amateur farmers to unwittingly unleash invasive species. The Maine Potato Board, the Maine Dairy Industry Association, the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Federation of Humane Societies all opposed the measure.
“How do you maintain food safety standards and quality if there is no regulation? That is what this amendment has asked for,” Julie Ann Smith, the Maine Farm Bureau’s executive director, told The Post.
Oversight is born out of need, Smith said. She worries that because of the amendment, small and midsized farmers and producers will lose “inexpensive support” such as free soil and water testing provided by state regulators, which will keep them from identifying real problems with their crops and livestock and hurt them in the long term.
Maine’s food sovereignty movement has been building for years but really took off after 2017, when the state enacted legislation aimed at encouraging self-sufficiency in food production. Championed by small farmers, libertarians and back-to-land advocates, the law allows food producers to sell directly to consumers on-site.
The move provoked a warning from the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the time, which cautioned that federal investigators would take over meat and poultry inspection if Maine did not change its legislation to ensure that adequate safeguards were in place.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment from The Post about the new amendment.
Advocates of the amendment say it addresses major challenges such as hunger and corporate control of the food supply. Critics have said that the rights as outlined — to farm, hunt and exchange seeds — are adequately covered in Maine’s existing constitution and are not under regulatory threat.
As a constitutional amendment, the measure will preempt existing Maine laws and regulations, leaving them vulnerable to legal challenges. The Bangor Daily News editorial board, which opposed the bill, said the amendment “raises a host of questions about what this language would mean for existing laws and regulations spanning from food safety and animal welfare to environmental protection.”
“We have a hard time seeing how creating this new ambiguous constitutional right won’t lead to court challenges where judges, rather than the Legislature, will decide what this language really means,” the editorial board added.
States such as Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota have pressed similar legislation addressing food sovereignty, and advocates of the new amendment say it will open the door for more states to follow suit.