The Universal Notebook: What does Maine’s ‘Right to Food’ amendment actually mean?

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What were we thinking on November 2, 2021 when we voted 61 percent to 39 percent to approve adding “a right to food” to the Maine Constitution? I voted for it, but I’m guessing most of us really had no idea why we supported a constitutional right to food other than it sounded like a good idea. Now I’m not sure it was.

The first-in-the-nation right that got added to the Maine Constitution as a result of our support for a right to food reads, “All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the harvesting, production or acquisition of food.”

Edgar Allen BeemSounds harmless, right? But what we are finding is that the right to food means a lot of different things to people.

Proponents seemed to think a right to food would somehow protect local food sources against corporate agribusiness. Opponents were concerned a right to raise your own food would allow your next door neighbor to raise pigs and cows in suburbia and might undermine food safety and animal welfare laws. Does the right to food permit you to eat your dog?

One of the first invocations of the right to food was a lawsuit filed by a Readfield couple claiming that Maine’s ban on Sunday hunting violated their right to harvest food. That claim seemed gratuitous to me. They might just as well have argued that they had the right to hunt deer 365 days a year, not just in November. The lawsuit got thrown out of Kennebec County Superior Court, but in this Never Take No for an Answer Age, the case was appealed in March to the Maine Supreme Court.

Now we’ve got a gourmet kitchen in Kenduskeag citing the right to food in a lawsuit that claims the state has no right to require it to secure a license in order to prepare and sell food to the public. I sure as hell hope the state has a right to require food preparers to be licensed, but this seems to be yet another application of the right to food amendment that most people didn’t see coming.

It’s pretty clear that a right to food does not mean that the state government is obligated to feed Maine’s citizens…or does it? Because that’s exactly what I would argue if I ran a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Is the right to food the right to be fed?

Then there is the matter of seeds, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be precise.

Right to food promoter Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) asked, “Will Monsanto own all the seeds, and will we have gotten so far from our roots that we won’t even have natural seeds anymore?”

But if I were an attorney for Monsanto, I think I might counter that Maine’s constitutional right to grow food allows my client to plant GMO seeds whenever and wherever.

And given that House Minority Leader Faulkingham is a lobsterman, don’t be surprised if the right to food doesn’t surface as a defense should the courts rule against the lobster industry in order to protect whales.

So far, the right to food simply seems to mean the right to sue, but then that’s really all any constitutional right ever is.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen review column.

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