by Heather Retberg
A work session of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry on February 4th, turned a long shot proposal for a constitutional amendment into a fighting chance for establishing a right to food in Maine.
While political tricks and lobbying acrobatics of past sessions have blocked food sovereignty bills and the bills that would have re-legitimized the direct exchange of food, the current bill proposal, LD 783, works differently. What we’ve experienced up until now has been a collusion of the Big Food Lobby with the Department of Agriculture to block bills that create or protect the legal space around small, diversified farms and facilitate access to real food. The threat of executive veto overshadowed the process and the lobbyists have always amplified this potential outcome. They have had success in stripping some of the small-farm friendly bills of food sovereignty and/or food freedom components by making threats about what might happen “on the 2nd floor” (read: the Governor’s office).
The Resolution to Propose an Amendment to Maine’s Constitution to Establish a Right to Food works differently than the bills to enact a law. Because LD 783 is a constitutional amendment, the role for the Governor is to proclaim the results of an eventual referendum vote on the proposal. There is no veto provision. There is one less weapon in the Big Food Lobby arsenal. The first step, like with other bills, is a public hearing before the committee of jurisdiction, in this case the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. If it receives an “ought to pass” vote, it faces the tough task of passing by 2/3 majority vote in both House and Senate. If LD 783 succeeds in securing this majority, it goes to us, the people of Maine, to vote on in November’s election. This process is all about the people and our representatives in the legislature.
Now, given all that as context…the committee room was plenty full of the Big Food Lobby at the work session earlier this month. Though there is no regulatory impact of enacting a constitutional protection for the right to food, the Department of Agriculture was also heavily represented. The room was also plenty full of citizens and a few farming organizations, Food for Maine’s Future and MOFGA, paying attention to the process and talking to legislators who have, over time, come to respect and understand our efforts.
The bill’s sponsor and House Chair of the ACF Committee, Rep. Craig Hickman, gave a detailed and articulate explanation of the bill and reasoning for passage. He clarified the distinction between a law and enacting a constitutional protection of an inherent right. People across the state had been writing letters over the course of the week to the committee reminding them of the importance and urgency of this bill, asking for their positive vote to send it out to the people to vote on in November.
After a brief discussion, the Republicans moved to caucus behind closed doors. This is never a good sign. The department officials moved to join them. This is an even more alarming sign. It looked like a partisan effort to kill the bill–a re-run of what had been attempted last session. This time, however, a few things went differently. When they all emerged from the room after too long a while, the department officials looked ashen. Two of the party weren’t going to allow the right to food to become a partisan issue (HOORAY for Rep. Marean and Sen. Saviello!), but were going to vote on the issues at hand. They had really listened to the public last spring, read the many letters, understood and responded. That meant LD 783 would get enough votes to pass!
Some mysteries still remain. Why did Rep. Russell Black, the ranking Republican on the ACF Committee, co-sponsor this legislation last spring, then vote against it this winter? In a response to a constituent who posed that question, he stated that “the Dep’t. Of Ag was against it.” But, who is responsible for making the laws in Maine? The agencies? And should our elected representatives serve their needs/interests? This is democracy running backwards. The representatives should be serving the needs/interests of their constituents, people, not agencies. The agencies’ role is then to carry out the will of the people as passed through the legislature and committee of oversight, not the other way around.
When the vote was taken, the bill received a majority “ought to pass” vote. It was a split vote (8-5), but that gives LD 783 a fighting chance on the floor of both houses. It remains an uphill battle, but LD 783 cleared the first hurdle. February 4th was a day of victory for access to real food and food rights!
Please encourage your representatives and senators to vote to support the majority report on LD 783 and send it to the people.
Let the people decide. Onward. One step at a time.
“Ultimately, each of us deserves the freedom to work out our own nutrition and food regimen.”
–Joel Salatin on LD 783 Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Establish a Right to Food
The text of LD 783 is below:
Sect. 25. Right to food freedom; food self-sufficiency; bodily health and well-being. All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to acquire, produce, process, prepare, preserve and consume food of their own choosing, for their own nourishment and sustenance, by hunting, gathering, foraging, farming, fishing, gardening or saving and exchanging seeds, provided that
no individual commits trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the acquisition of food; furthermore, all individuals have a right to barter, trade or purchase food from the sources of their own choosing, for their own bodily health and well-being; and every individual is fully responsible for the exercise of these rights, which may not be infringed.