Mainers will vote on the referendum in November. Supporters say it takes power from corporate food interests. But opponents argue it could endanger animals and threaten food safety.
BY AVERY YALE KAMILA
Maine animal welfare advocates are warning voters the Right to Food referendum, Question 3 on the November ballot, could endanger the state’s farm animals, wildlife and food safety laws. Supporters counter the bill is about shifting power from corporate food interests and their regulatory allies to individual Mainers. Voters get the final say.
If approved at the ballot box, the bill would amend the Declaration of Rights within Maine’s Constitution by inserting the following 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.”
A lot of that sounds appetizing to plant-based eaters, but the words “of their own choosing” raises red flags among animal welfare advocates and other opponents, who worry that such broad license could cause any Maine property owner, from a factory farm operator to the odd neighbor down the road, to claim an exemption from state laws governing animal welfare, pollution control, food safety or nuisance properties in order to eat the animals that they choose in a manner they see fit.
“This particular amendment seems to place above any other law the right of individuals to acquire food in a manner they deem appropriate,” said veterinarian Janelle Tirrell, who chairs the Maine Veterinary Medical Association’s legislative committee. “How does that affect zoning laws? Animal care regulations? Slaughter regulations? The truth of the matter is that we don’t have an answer.”
Maine has some of the strongest animal protection laws in the nation. In fact, the nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund awarded Maine the top spot in its latest 50 state ranking of animal welfare laws. It’s an achievement Maine animal welfare advocates are keen to maintain.
Referendum supporter Senator Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, emphasized that a constitutional amendment does not change existing state laws. “It has no bearing on animal welfare because the animal welfare laws remain intact,” Hickman said. This is accurate, but with a caveat.
Maine’s Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, establishes the broad framework for how the citizenry will be governed. But it does not define how these principles will be enforced or permitted. That’s for the courts to work out through litigation or future legislatures to codify into law.
Hickman, an organic farmer and a longtime food security advocate, agreed the scope of the amendment will be defined by future court rulings. For him and other supporters, the constitutional amendment is needed to give individuals the right to challenge restrictions on their freedom to choose their own food.
“This is about securing a right that gives people a legal standing against corporate power … if and when people think their rights have been infringed,” Hickman said, and added that the constitutional amendment “could be a benefit to animal welfare folks” since it would protect their personal food choices, too. In the case of a vegan child attending a Maine public school that does not provide vegan hot lunch, “you could make a class action lawsuit against a school district and say the Constitution of Maine gives us a right to the food that’s right for us,” Hickman said. “You would have ground to stand on as a vegetarian or vegan.”
Vegan parents might cheer such legal standing, but it worries the Maine Municipal Association, which represents the state’s towns and cities and opposes the amendment. The organization fears its members will be the first to face lawsuits should the referendum pass and the state Constitution be amended.
“Constitutional rights aren’t established until they go to court,” said Rebecca Graham, legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association. “So a lawsuit would have to be established to determine that right.”
Beth Gallie, who heads the Maine Animal Coalition and chairs the newly formed political action committee The Right to Food Amendment Leaves a Bad Taste in Our Mouths Committee, worries court challenges would result in weakening Maine’s laws. Both organizations are opposing the amendment.
Gallie said if the amendment is adopted at the ballot it “will potentially override agriculture-related laws approved by Mainers to limit inhumane conditions on farms, pollution in our communities and even worker safety.”
Other groups have expressed similar concerns.
“The amendment is vague to the point it creates more questions than it provides answers,” said Robert Fisk, Jr., president of the Maine Friends of Animals, which opposes the referendum. “An example is the effect it could have on animal welfare, including noncompliance with farm animal welfare and safety statutes, enforcing Maine wildlife laws, and even impacting animal welfare laws and the best interests of companion animals.”
Graham sees an additional set of problems with the title of the amendment because in legal terms the Maine Right to Food bill we vote on this November differs from the United Nations’ declaration of the Right to Food as a fundamental human rights issue. The U.N. considers availability, accessibility, adequacy and sustainability as the key measures of this right. Choice is not part of the U.N. equation. Graham said the U.N. principles are used by Maine municipally run food service and food relief programs.
“None of those things is protected by the language of the bill,” Graham said of the state’s Right to Food referendum. “It’s questionable as to what it is trying to achieve. We don’t know how the courts will interpret that. It may be the exact opposite outcome in the process. If this is about the right to food, then enshrine those tenets rather than choice.”
Gallie speculates that the proponents’ aim is more about the “right to food sovereignty” rather than the “right to food.” The food sovereignty movement aims to remove state regulatory oversight of direct producer to customer sales and of food consumed by the producers themselves. Most cases of food rights being restricted involve animal-based foods, such as home-slaughtered meat and raw cow’s milk.
In 2017, the Maine Legislature passed a Food Sovereignty Act, allowing more than 90 municipalities to pass ordinances regulating the exchange of home-grown foods. Animal-based meat is exempted from the act, meaning butchered animals remain subject to the state’s pollution, slaughter and animal welfare laws. But the constitutional amendment could give an individual legal standing to challenge these restrictions.
“Most Mainers have never heard of the food sovereignty movement,” Gallie said. “So in my opinion, if that is what the amendment is really about, it is premature for us to be changing the Constitution.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said “this is really a shift away from the industrial farms.” Curtailing factory farms is an attractive argument for Maine vegans and vegetarians, yet Faulkingham illustrated the divide between the supporters and opponents of the amendment when he said that “the animal rights groups should be supporters of the right to food because it’s going to support small farmers and individuals who really take care of their animals and value their animals.”
But many animal welfare advocates note that in Maine most cases of farm animal abuse take place on small farms.
“When we see abuse, the majority of the cases that animal welfare is involved with in the state do not focus on large farms,” Tirrell said. “It is the backyard producer. People who enter into food production or animal husbandry without experience or guidance who end up, either through neglect or intent, not caring for their animals properly. These are backyard producers.”
Amendment supporters and opponents share concerns about corporate influence over the food system and state restrictions on individual choice. However they remain far apart when it comes to any potential loosening of laws that regulate farm animal welfare. Gallie put it this way: “Animal rights people could have things in common with the food sovereignty crowd, but we would prefer to hammer out the issues in the legislature.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at