AUGUSTA, Maine – Voters will decide in November to enshrine a right to food in the Maine Constitution, which would continue the state’s pioneering efforts on the subject, but would likely spark decades of discussion about what exactly such a right would allow or prevent exactly.
The push in Maine is part of a larger effort to strengthen local food networks led by small-scale farmers and lawmakers from all political backgrounds. This resulted in a 2017 Food Sovereignty Law, the first in the country, which allowed cities and towns to disregard certain national food safety laws for products prepared and sold within their borders. .
The constitutional amendment failed twice in the legislature before he easily went to the polls this year. Voters will be asked to inscribe “a natural, inherent and inalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their choice” in a section of the Maine Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression, the right to firearms and other freedoms.
The change is likely to have limited short-term effects, and long-term effects are uncertain. It aims to keep food regulations in place and does not address access to food as do some international constitutions. This could set a limit on future food regulations in state courts and be a mainstay of a long debate about the scope of any new law.
“These types of constitutional amendments are really meant to give someone standing” in court, said Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “It’s really hard to say exactly what kind of scenario could arise in the future that the courts should assess, but we don’t have it now and we think we should.”
Voters have amended the Maine Constitution 174 times since 1834. However, new rights have rarely been addressed in this way. The last time was in 1987, when voters supported an individual right to bear arms that “will never be called into question” in response to a High Court ruling that found an old state right to guns extended only to militia members.
The push for a right to food does not stem from any particular court ruling, but Senator Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who defended earlier versions of the amendment while in the House , noted a file from the Federal Food and Drug Administration. in a 2010 raw milk court case which says that people have “no absolute right to consume or feed children with any particular food”.
Hickman has been the primary champion of food law for the past decade in the Legislature, including the Sovereignty Bill and a 2019 measure committing the State To End Hunger By 2030 which noted that 90 percent of food consumed in Maine is imported from out of state. But this year’s amendment was sponsored by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, a lobster who led a coalition of political right and left supporters.
The measure attracted some opponents, including the Humane Society of the United States, an animal welfare group that has said it could prevent future animal welfare restrictions or cause poachers to challenge hunting laws in court, though the amendment says freedom does not exist. ‘would not extend to those who break, steal, poach or violate other laws.
But the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which defeated the Humanitarian Society in the latter group’s attempts in 2004 and 2014 to ban the most common methods of bear hunting in the state, did not weigh in on the measure because she “didn’t see her as doing a lot of things,” said David Trahan, the group’s executive director.
Maine’s historical boundaries in agriculture, hunting and other areas of food policy would be key benchmarks for courts deciding how to interpret the amendments, said Dmitry Bam, constitutional law professor at the University of Maine Law School. He noted that despite the radical wording of the amendment, every constitutional freedom is subject to reasonable limits.
“This is how I think the court would approach these kinds of rights,” Bam said. “If you want to do something that has been historically prohibited, the court would consider these historical exceptions as the limit of that right. “
Faulkingham and other supporters have broadly framed the change as one that will protect current rights and draw lines against onerous restrictions authorities may try to implement in decades to come, likening the push to articles of the US Constitution which aimed to ward off authoritarian rulers that might come in the future.
“It’s really our protections, our constitutional protections, that keep it from ever getting to this point,” he said.