AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House of Representatives dealt a blow to local food sovereignty advocates Wednesday, voting 93-49 against a bill that would have established the Maine Food Sovereignty Act of 2013.
Nine Maine towns have passed local ordinances that claim home rule rights that contradict state food licensing and inspection regulations. A Superior Court judge’s ruling last month against a Blue Hill farmer accentuated the conflict between homestead farmers who don’t believe they should be subject to state licensure or inspection and others, including farm owners, who argue that current state rules protect public health and assure all consumers that Maine farm products are safe.
Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, sponsored the measure, LD 475, which went to the House with a majority “ought not to pass” recommendation from the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Five members of the committee, including Hickman, voted to support the bill, while eight voted to recommend against passage.
During floor debate Wednesday, proponents framed the bill as a tool to bolster local control and to shift control of Maine’s food production from corporate interests to local farmers.
“Food sovereignty is the right of people to healthy food produced through sound methods,” said Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freeport.
Jones, who co-sponsored the bill, went on to assert that by passing LD 475, legislators would demonstrate their trust that voters at town meetings can “achieve democratic community objectives and determine the extent to which they want to become self-reliant.”
“Food sovereignty equals self-determination,” Hickman said before asking his colleagues in the Legislature whether they trusted multinational corporations that influence government policy and the marketplace more than “the person in your neighborhood or community who produces food with wholesome ingredients and a heaping bowl of love.”
Opponents, including Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, who owns an orchard, argued that it would harm small farmers and undermine the integrity of the state’s successful farm inspection and licensing system.
“We need to have safe food,” Timberlake said. “Farmers following rules and regulations of the state of Maine ask you to support ‘ought not to pass.’”
Speaking against the bill, Rep. Jane Pringle, D-Windham, whose family grows grapes on a farm, said history shows that foodborne illnesses occur when the state regulatory system fails.
“We go through regulation because it benefits us,” she said. “We will gladly jump through regulatory hoops so we sell wine legally and safely.”
Rep. Aaron Libby, R-Waterboro, the bill’s other co-sponsor, expressed reservations about an unintended consequence of passage. Limiting existing state oversight could lead to more federal involvement with Maine’s local food production, he said.
Libby agreed with Timberlake, who said, “Trust me, I want to be inspected by the state of Maine, not the federal government.”
To counter that argument, Hickman pointed to the 2009 Maine referendum in support of medical marijuana that conflicts with federal law
“The threat of the FDA or the USDA coming in and taking over everything or shutting down all Maine food producers is a fear-based argument that simply doesn’t hold water,” he said.
Rep. James Dill, D-Old Town, House chairman of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, urged the House to reject this bill because the committee addressed local food sovereignty concerns in other pieces of legislation.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.