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Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine 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?
Who could oppose a right to food? At first glance, it seems like an idea that should be as popular as locally made apple pie.
The concept of building more independent, self-sustainable local food systems — where people can feed themselves and their families rather than relying on large-scale agriculture, international grocery store chains or the government — is a good one. The supply chain disruptions and empty shelves seen during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that plainly and painfully.
Question 3 on the Nov. 2 ballot, however, does more than ask voters to sign off on this idea. This referendum question is not simply an up or down vote on self-sufficiency or locally grown food. It asks people to approve a new amendment to the Maine Constitution, enshrining a right to “grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume” food of their choosing. For us, it also raises a host of questions about what this language would mean for existing laws and regulations spanning from food safety and animal welfare to environmental protection.
Backers of the referendum are confident that such questions and potential unintended consequences have been addressed in the amendment language. They believe this is simple and straightforward. We simply disagree.
To be clear, the language of Question 3 is not the full language of the actual amendment that would be added to the Maine Constitution if the question receives majority support from voters. Here is the complete amendment language:
“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.”
This language didn’t hastily materialize overnight. This has been in the works for years, with Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman sponsoring earlier iterations and Republican Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham sponsoring the bill that has led to Question 3 being on the ballot this year. And the authors have been responsive to past concerns, as demonstrated by the addition of language that would exclude “trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the harvesting” from this new right.
But even as we acknowledge those important facts, we remain unconvinced and unsure what this language really means relative to existing state law. Faulkingham told us in a recent interview that “we’ve taken care of all the questions.” Hickman told us that “only good can come from enshrining the right to food in any constitution.”
They may be confident that the laws on the books will not be changed with the establishment of this new right, but we aren’t. We’ve seen other instances in the past where different referendum backers have been confident that concerns about their language were misplaced, only to have courts later rule against them and the Legislature have to spend a lot of time cleaning things up. That clean up, if necessary, could be particularly difficult in the case of a constitutional amendment compared to a change in state law.
Even with the understanding that no right is absolute, we have a hard time seeing how creating this new, ambiguous constitutional right won’t lead to court challenges where judges, rather than the Legislature, will decide what this language really means.
“We don’t want to support an idea,” Maine Farm Bureau Executive Director Julie Ann Smith told us. “We want to support concrete language that solves a problem, and we have no idea what if any problem this is trying to solve, and we don’t see any solutions contained within that language. We see a lot of questions raised.”
We’ll also point out that the constitutional amendment proposed in Question 3 does not expressly mention hunger. That’s not for lack of trying, as an earlier version did include language that would have explicitly established a right “to be free from hunger, malnutrition, starvation and the endangerment of life from the scarcity of or lack of access to nourishing food.”
As we understand it, that language was removed for pragmatic reasons, in order for the measure to gain enough support in the Legislature. We understand the calculus of compromise, but frankly find that language more compelling than what ended up on the ballot.
In legislative testimony earlier this year, a supporter of this right to food amendment called it “pure poetry.” Perhaps we lack imagination, but we believe constitutional amendments need more than poetry. They also need precision and clear definitions. We are unconvinced and unsure of the ramifications, and that is enough for us to oppose Question 3.