Our View: Question 3 the wrong way to address problems in food system
Approval would put a "right to food" in the state constitution, but it's unclear what that means.
BY THE Portland Press Herald EDITORIAL BOARD

Yes, there’s a Question 3 on the November statewide ballot, after the high-profile referendum on the CMP corridor and the ever-present choice on transportation funding.

If that’s got you wondering, “What the heck are we voting on?”, don’t hold your breath. While Question 3 aims to do great things — preserve the right of Mainers to feed and nourish themselves, reform the food system to empower people over corporations, reduce hunger — it is silent on how to do them.

Instead, that will be decided in the legal arena as people use the courts to define exactly what is meant by a “right to food.” It’s unclear just how that would play out, and whether approving Question 3 would actually achieve its goals. At the same time, it’s not clear that our “right to food” is at risk.

For those reasons, we urge a no vote on Question 3. While we agree with a lot of concerns expressed in referendum, we do not believe it warrants a constitutional amendment — a law superior to all others — particularly one with such unsure consequences.

Mainers who want to improve our food system, address hunger and preserve a right to produce their own food would be better off securing those things the way our state has in the past: through the legislative process, where the complicated interplay of food rights and regulations can be hashed out with more precision.

ON THE BALLOT

Question 3 reads: “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?”

If approved, Maine’s constitution would be amended to include a “Right to food,” specifically that, “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,” as long as they don’t break any other laws.

Backers say the amendment would guarantee the freedom of choice when it comes to feeding ourselves. It would, they say, empower everyday citizens to protect their access to healthful food against encroaching corporations and overzealous regulators.

Opponents say it would put food safety and animal welfare laws at risk, allowing abuse, inhuman conditions and pollution as people see it as license “to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing” however they please.

But the simple truth is that there’s no telling how it would turn out.

DOING IT RIGHT

What we do know is that Maine has been successful in addressing the concerns laid out by Question 3 proponents. Disputes over burdensome food regulations ended with the 2017 Maine Food Sovereignty Act, which balances food safety with the ability of small food producers to sell directly to customers.
There have otherwise been few other instances where anyone’s right to grow and consume food has been infringed upon, besides some anecdotes of regulators going too far in response to slight food safety violations. Those should start a debate over regulations, not a constitutional amendment.

Maine, too, has a strong farming industry, organic and otherwise. We can be the centerpiece of robust, self-sufficient food system for New England which protects against the worst impulses of corporate agriculture. But building that demands that multiple factors and points of views be considered, something best done through legislation, not the courts.

Finally, it’s hard to see how Question 3 in any way will address hunger, which is a result of poverty much more than an inadequate food system. A “right to food” won’t guarantee meals on the table or a supermarket in your community. Growing their own nourishment is not an option for most people.

DRASTIC STEP

It’s better, again, to expand food stamps and school meals programs, as has been done in Maine and federally in recent years, to alleviate poverty, and to use mechanisms like the child tax credit.
There’s a chance a right to food would help in the push for some of these policies. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. That’s the chance you take with a first-in-the-nation constitutional amendment, as the right to food would be.

Question 3 raises a lot of legitimate concerns, but it won’t necessarily fix them.
Without that certainty, and without a clear and present danger to anyone’s right to the food they want, Maine shouldn’t take the drastic step of amending its constitution.