What Does Maine’s “Right to Food” Amendment Mean?

All over the Pine Tree State, Mainers are parsing their new, unalienable, and ambiguous right to grow and raise what they eat.

What Does Maine’s “Right to Food” Amendment Mean?
By Jesse Ellison
From our February 2022 issue

The noise around Question 1 — a referendum on cutting an electricity-transmission corridor through western Maine forests — was so deafening in the lead-up to last November’s election, a voter would be forgiven for thinking it was the only ballot measure. Groups on either side of that issue dropped some $100 million on it. Meanwhile, less than eight hundredths of a percent of that sum — or about $75,000 — was spent on a question that would, for only the second time in Maine’s 200-year history, enshrine a new right in the state constitution: the “right to food.”

Specifically, the question asked whether “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.” It sounded innocuous enough, and it passed with more than 60 percent of the vote. Craig Hickman, an organic farmer and Democratic state senator from Winthrop, penned the language of the amendment and called its passage “a transformative change that benefits all Mainers.” No other state has a constitution that mentions a right to food, although it is a concept in some foreign constitutions.

“Food is life,” Hickman wrote in response to emailed questions, after initially declining any interview that wasn’t for the purpose of lauding the amendment. He called the outcome of the referendum a vote “for freedom, not some modern-day iteration of slavery at the hands of corporate masters.” Hickman and other supporters say the amendment will help ameliorate rising rates of food insecurity and curtail dependence on long supply chains. He likened its opponents to defeated Confederate soldiers and “defenders of chattel slavery.”

The Maine Veterinary Medical Association was among those opponents, voicing concerns about animal welfare if inexperienced people were suddenly empowered to keep livestock in unconventional settings — cows in an urban backyard, say. The Maine Municipal Association was likewise against it, predicting years of court battles over whether a carte-blanche right to grow food might, for example, supersede local ordinances prohibiting pesticides. So too was the Maine Farm Bureau, which wondered how the new right would impact health and safety regulations around processing, pasteurization, and other standards. Marge Kilkelly, a former lawmaker who raises turkeys, pigs, and goats on her Dresden farm, wrote an October op-ed for the Portland Press Herald opposing the measure. “What I guess perplexes me about this is it supposes to address food insecurity without actually putting anything in place to address food insecurity,” she says. “What does it mean to have a right to grow and harvest your own food? The more vague the language, the more people can support it because they define it themselves. The devil is in the details. In this case, there weren’t any details.”

“Why wouldn’t you want to establish the right to food?” asks David Trahan, head of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which supported the question. “If you don’t have a right to food and water, you don’t have a right to life.” Trahan says he hopes the amendment will ultimately make it more difficult for municipalities to regulate hunting (and, he adds, other activities, like gardening and chicken raising). “I tell these people who are concerned that this may be resolved in the courts, ‘Well, that’s true of every constitutional right.’”

On that point, most everyone agrees, including Dmitry Bam, vice dean and provost at the University of Maine School of Law. He foresees a wave of litigation in coming years, as individuals and interest groups use the newfound right to push back against state and municipal rules. Some of those cases will likely wind up in front of the state supreme court. “It’ll be a clean slate for the court to write on,” he says. The justices will have to decipher what, if anything, the amendment means. “In the abstract,” Bam adds, “who can be against the right to food?”