“It’s worded funny.” Thus spoke one Mainer who knows a lot about these things. He was speaking of Question 3 on the Nov. 2 referendum ballot. It seems a noble effort, but it’s confusing to many a voter.
Question 3 proposes a constitutional amendment to “declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” Yep. Worded funny.
Amending the constitution is a big deal. Once amended, should there be unforeseen consequences, the only way to fix it is by amending it again. It takes a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to put a proposed constitutional amendment before the people, and a majority vote of the people to approve it.
What problem does this proposed amendment seek to solve? That’s what’s at the heart of the debate. Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) says it protects “the individual right to be free from hunger…” He cites a food insecurity rate of about 14 percent in Maine, the highest in New England, and says over 90 percent of food eaten by Mainers comes from out of state, making Maine “vulnerable to weaknesses in the national economy and infrastructure.”
These are serious issues, for sure, but what exactly would this constitutional amendment do to help? The goal for Faulkingham is a “self-determined food system.” Another proponent says it would “secure hunting, fishing and raising livestock for future generations,” but it is not clear how those activities are threatened.
Heather Retberg, a board member of Food for Maine’s Future, asserts that “power over our food supply is concentrated in a few individuals and corporations.” Really? According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Hancock County had 404 farms with an average size of 132 acres. The state as a whole had about 8,173 farms that year, but the number had declined to 7,600 by 2017. Retberg says farm concentration “threatens Mainers’ individual rights to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of our choosing now and in the future.”
Among the opposition to Question 3 and speaking for the awkwardly named “‘Right to Food’ Amendment Leaves a Bad Taste in Our Mouths Committee,” Chairwoman Beth Gallie issues warnings of what could come if the amendment passes. It would give “international food conglomerates license to do whatever they want to our food.”
Gallie says it would “strip away animal welfare standards in animal agriculture” and give us a “right to eat dogs, cats and horses.” Yuck. It would take away the authority of local governments to require “health and safety, anti-pollution, and zoning standards” and let “a handful of judges … determine the future of our food policy.”
Gallie says the “architects of the amendment have not given Mainers a single good reason for this amendment to our Constitution.” Yes, reasons are a bit thin on the ground. Among the groups opposing the measure, food safety, pest and disease control and animal welfare are raised as concerns.
The Maine Department of Agriculture warns that the “constitutional amendments will pre-empt state law and may be subject to legal interpretation…” The Legislature’s Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, home of the resident geniuses who advise legislators on all policy matters fully, faithfully and accurately, says the amendment “will eventually need to be interpreted by a judge in order to determine how this impacts presently existing laws and regulations.”
The Maine Municipal Association, Maine Farm Bureau and Maine Potato Board all oppose the measure. The Maine Potato Board! Mainers to the bone, paragons of common sense and (in this case) worried that “laws … with respect to pests and disease may no longer be in effect.”
Others argue that food insecurity is an economic issue and this “right to food” proposal does nothing to alleviate that.
That the Legislature mustered a two-thirds vote to send this constitutional amendment to the voters is food for thought, though sometimes that means no more than a legislative expression of “We don’t know. Let the people decide.” But when trusted authorities weigh in on the difficulties of legal interpretation within the proposal, it seems we’re asking for trouble.
Future developments could make the matter more persuasive. Maybe it could be done statutorily, at least for now, providing greater flexibility as circumstances change. A constitutional amendment at this point seems a hard sell.
Now for the good news. Question 2? Easy peasy. It’s a proposed bond issue to “build or improve roads, bridges, railroads, airports, transit facilities and ports…” and would leverage federal funds to the tune of 2.5 federal dollars to every state dollar. Infrastructure development and maintenance are chronically underfunded in Maine (and everywhere else). We should approve Question 2.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.