By Colleen B. Schmidt
In early November, voters in Maine chose to add an amendment to the state constitution recognizing a “natural, inherent, and unalienable right to food”—a first in the nation. Despite controversy over what tangible changes the new amendment would actually make, more than 70 percent of the state legislature voted to put it on the ballot, and 61 percent of Mainers voted yes. The amendment has received support from a diverse array of groups, from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine-Institute for Legislative Action and the Maine Black Community Development. Opponents include veterinary and animal rights groups, who fear the potential for extensive animal welfare problems that could arise an expansion in amateur animal husbandry, and the Maine Municipal Association, which expressed fears that cities and towns will bear the brunt of costs for litigating issues that arise from the new amendment. Although dozens of countries around the world already protect this right, Maine’s constitutional amendment is a wordier document that opens doors to criticism and confusion.
The right to food
The right to food is internationally recognized, and is included in both Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Both documents recognize the food as part of an adequate standard of living. The Covenant goes on to recognize the right to be “free from hunger” and commits the 171 states that have ratified the document to both “improve methods of production, conservation, and distribution of food” and “ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies”. The United States is one of four countries that has signed but not yet ratified the Covenant. And because the US lacks an explicit right to food in its constitution, citizens are without any protection of their ability to grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food they choose.
Maine’s new amendment explicitly recognizes individuals’ right to “save and exchange seeds” and “grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” It also explicitly protects private property rights and does not authorize “trespassing, theft, poaching” or abuses of “public lands or natural resources” as part of the right to food.
In a state that imports 90 percent of its food and saw gaps on grocery store shelves and other food shortages throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some see the new amendment as an opportunity to localize food systems and foster resilience. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association supports the amendment from an empowerment perspective, stating that “Right to Food will shift the way we think about our food security – reducing our reliance on public assistance and increasing our self-sufficiency.” Maine Black Community Development has similar views: “feeding ourselves, with the food we produce for ourselves, represents the highest expression of self-determination and dignity” (emphasis in original).
Others say the amendment lacks the mechanisms to change Maine’s food system. More than one in ten Mainers faced food insecurity before the pandemic, and more than one in five did so during the spring of 2020, so there is ample reason for the state to focus on food. Yet the amendment is simply a recognition of rights and does not authorize funding for any food- or hunger-related programs, which is one aspect of the change with which the Maine Farm Bureau (MFB) takes issue. MFB is also concerned about crop disease, invasive species, and food safety issues related to the missteps of untrained people in agriculture.
Food freedom laws in other states
While Maine is the first state to vote on a right-to-food measure, other states have taken steps to pass similar laws. Eleven West Virginia state delegates introduced House Joint Resolution 30 this year, which would amend the state constitution if voters approve it next fall. The West Virginia amendment contains language that is very similar to the Maine amendment. It also includes a clause on freedom from hunger.
In the last decade, many states have passed laws to expand access to local foods by decreasing regulatory barriers to production. The Colorado Cottage Foods Act of 2012 legalized the sale of certain foods direct-to-consumer without the usual need for licensing or inspection. To decrease food safety risks, it limits sales to foods such as jams and baked goods that do not require refrigeration and includes other restrictions such as a pH limit on pickled foods. A similar law passed in Wyoming in 2015.
International constitutional protections
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, twenty-nine countries around the world explicitly protect the right to food in their constitutions, and sixteen protect it implicitly. Many of these explicit protections are stated simply, from Bolivia’s Article 16 declaring that “every person has the right to water and food” to Egypt’s Article 79, which says that “each citizen has the right to healthy and sufficient food and clean water,” and South Africa’s Article 27(1)(b) “everyone has the right to have access to…sufficient food and water.” Maine’s amendment, however, goes on to describe how individuals can exercise their right: through seed-saving and growing or raising their own food. Instead of just a basic right to food, Maine’s amendment protects an individual’s right to various methods of production and procurement. Although it safeguards traditional practices including hunting and foraging, the expansiveness of the language has caused some skeptics to wonder exactly what behaviors the law might be invoked to protect.
Another major difference between Maine’s amendment and constitutional protections abroad is that many constitutions do not stop at a statement protecting the right to food but also task the state with the responsibility for ensuring or realizing this right for its citizens. On the contrary, the campaign to amend Maine’s amendment, on the other hand, advertises that it “does not mean society must provide food for certain groups of people.”
Maine’s new constitutional amendment succeeds in bringing protections for the right to food to the United States and provides a model for other states to follow. Although it does not authorize new anti-hunger programs, and its relatively general wording raises questions about how it could be interpreted, the amendment empowers a diverse array of Maine’s hunters, fishers, foragers and gardeners to make their own food decisions.
- Right to Food for Maine, righttofoodformaine.com
- Is there a constitutional right to food? Mainers to decide, seattletimes.com
- Maine voters to consider “right to food” constitutional amendment, thecounter.org
- Right to Food: Maine’s New Constitutional Amendment, natlawreview.org
- Maine is the First State to Establish a Right to Food, nycfoodpolicy.org
Food Freedom in the US:
- The Food Freedom Movement: Laws in Maine, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, National Environmental Health Association
- Maine Food Sovereignty Act, legislature.maine.gov
- Colorado Cottage Foods Act, colorado.gov
- Wyoming Food Freedom Act, agriculture.wy.gov
International Right to Food:
- The Right to Adequate Food, UN Human Rights (pdf download)
- The Right to Food Around the Globe, UN Food and Agriculture Organization
- The Human Right to Food in Bolivia, Center for Economic and Social Rights (pdf download)