Maine passes “Right to Food” constitutional amendment

December 16, 2021

In early November, Mainers voted to add a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a “right to food” for all individuals, including the right to grow, harvest, and consume food of their own choosing.

The amendment, in accordance with Maine law, first had to pass both chambers with two-thirds majorities before heading to referendum in November, when it was approved by 60 percent of voters.

The full text of the amendment, which is the first of its kind in the nation, will read:

Section 25. Right to food. 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.

The prime sponsor of several previous versions of the bill, including LD 795, Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop), testified in a 2019 committee hearing that, “food is life. There is nothing more intimate than eating. Do we have a right to obtain the food we wish, or don’t we? It’s really that simple. Let’s put it in black and white. Let’s put it in writing.”

Advocates supporting the effort, including Right To Food For Maine, pointed to the need for the state to become more food self-sufficient. They noted that 90 percent of what Mainers eat is imported into the state, leaving access to food vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain, as evidenced by empty shelves and labor shortages.

While large majorities of legislators and referendum voters supported the amendment, others expressed their reservations.

Krysta West, director of communications and outreach for the Maine Farm Bureau, expressed concern about food safety. “As drafted, this bill creates food safety concerns that extend beyond home canning by calling into question Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry’s authority to license and regulate all food products produced and sold in Maine. This includes milk, meat, eggs, value-added products and produce.”

Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife also expressed concerns about unintended consequences. “How would these bills, and their resulting constitutional rights, affect existing hunting laws or landowner’s rights,” they asked, adding that “the precise answer[s]…likely will not be supplied until these issues are tested in court. There is a distinct difference between a privilege and a right, particularly when it comes to fishing and hunting.”

Proponents countered these concerns, citing that:

  • Private property rights are protected under the amendment;
  • The right to food will not limit or constrain other rights;
  • Department oversight of food processing and commerce is protected; and
  • The right to food does not create a mandate for the government to provide food to any group.

Preventing government overreach in controlling “who can grow what” was another stated reason for the initiative, an idea that drew proponents of hemp cultivation into the debate, despite federal prohibitions.

Many farmers and gardeners will note the inclusion of seed sharing in the amendment. This practice, which includes saving and exchanging seeds harvested from one’s own plants, has been challenged by genetically modified (GMO) seed manufacturers in recent years. Manufacturers such as Monsanto have sought to stop farmers from saving GMO seeds under intellectual property law, as featured in the 2013 case Bowman v. Monsanto, a unanimous Supreme Court decision, which held that Monsanto had the legal right to prevent farmers from saving seeds from patented GMO crops for replanting in later years. How Maine’s constitutional amendment will challenge this ruling remains to be seen.

Ultimately, as with many constitutional amendments made at the state level, vague language will give rise to questions about how the broad language of the amendment will be interpreted and what the ramifications will be. Some questions, inevitably, will be addressed in the courts.

Whatever the outcome, continue to follow developments on the CSG East website and our newsletter on Agriculture and Rural Development, which will roll out in 2022. Sign up here.

You might also be interested in