On Nov. 2, Mainers will vote on Question 3, which would add an amendment to the state Constitution protecting the right to produce, harvest and consume food.
The amendment will “create a state right to growing, raising, harvesting, and producing food, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching, or abuses to private land, public land, or natural resources.” This includes “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.”
The language of the bill has left many voters confused and speculating about what it would actually mean to have this amendment added to the Constitution.
Whether you vote to approve the amendment to Maine’s Constitution boils down to whether your concerns about the future of access to food outweigh the potential unintended consequences of the amendment, according to Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist.
To help voters better understand Question 3, here are answers to common questions about what the amendment does and does not do.
Don’t Mainers already have a right to food?
Many Mainers are scratching their heads wondering if we did not already have the right to food. The bill’s proponents have said that it is intended more as an assurance against an uncertain future.
The legislators who wrote the bill have said that they worry in the future that the government might create roadblocks and restrictions on what Mainers can grow. Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, testified earlier this year before the Legislature’s agriculture committee that he is concerned that companies like Monsanto may “own all the seeds” in the future, and gardening may become “a luxury reserved for the rich.”
“Will we need it, 25, 33 or 50 years from now?” Faulkingham said. “If we wait until then to find out, it will be too late.”
Though it is unusual for amendments to address hypothetical situations that haven’t yet happened, Brewer said the intent of the bill’s writers is admirable. However, the way it is written could lead to unintended consequences.
“Trying to either legislate or amend against a future threat that is one, not fully fleshed out, and it’s not 100 percent clear it’s going to present itself, is at least somewhat problematic,” Brewer said. “I’m not advocating that the government sits on its hands until this becomes a problem. It’s just I don’t know that there’s a need for this at the moment and given that there’s not an immediate need, could doing this lead to something that people don’t anticipate?”
Will the amendment provide any funding to feed Mainers experiencing hunger?
The law provides no explicit funding to feed Mainers experiencing hunger.
If the amendment passes, will there be any immediate changes?
There aren’t likely to be any immediate changes if this amendment passes. Once the amendment is in place, the courts will be the final arbiter of what exactly it means.
“The language is so ambiguous it could open up a lot of things,” Brewer said. “It leaves a lot to the discretion of whatever court would be the one that would finally weigh in on this. ”
How will the amendment affect animal cruelty laws?
Question 3’s opponents worry that its language is too broad. Groups like Animal Rights Maine, the Maine Farm Bureau and Maine Friends of Animals have all come out against the bill in part because they worry that the bill will sanction animal cruelty. Their stance is that those raising animals for food in ways that violate animal cruelty and sanitation laws could argue that’s their constitutional right. They also worry that it will sanction people to raise animals not normally used as food, such as cats and dogs.
While it is unlikely that this would be a result of the amendment, Brewer said it is possible.
“A reasonable person could read this a variety of different ways,” Brewer said. “A reasonable person could read this and say, ‘Well sure it allows people to raise animals for food but it doesn’t exempt them from following existing laws.’ Another reasonable person could say, ‘This particular constitutional amendment now creates a right that people have inherently, and this particular prohibition violates that.’ It’s unclear.”
If the amendment passes, will it be possible to change it later?
“When you talk about amending the constitution, any time you look at changing a fundamental governing document you have to be cautious,” Brewer said. “One of the things that we know about public policy making is that there’s always unintended consequences. Sometimes those unintended consequences are positive, sometimes they’re negative. When it comes to policy making, ambiguity in general is not a great thing.”
If the amendment does pass and has negative consequences — for example, skirting animal cruelty laws — Brewer said it could be addressed through the courts or by changing the amendment, though “those things take time and they are not a guarantee.”
If the amendment does not pass, its proponents could still attempt to enshrine the “right to food” through statute, which Brewer said doesn’t have the force of constitutional amendment but it allows you to be more detailed and nuanced.