The right to food

Among the items Mainers will be asked to vote on this Nov. 2 is Question 3, which seeks to amend the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights to include a right to food. While the constitution has been amended more than 170 times for largely mechanical reasons such as updating language and for other so-called housekeeping measures, if passed this amendment would be one of very few substantive changes to the document and only the second time since its adoption that a new right has been added.

In its entirety, if approved, the new right would read: “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.”

Question 3 was not created in a vacuum and is more than a decade in the making. Beginning with a local, grassroots movement aimed at securing food sovereignty, more than 100 towns and cities across Maine have adopted local ordinances to strengthen the way in which food is produced and shared. In 2017, the state Legislature recognized the local authority inherent in such ordinances. And, over the last six years, say the drafters of the amendment, the wording was reworked and vetted with relevant stakeholders, including the state’s Department of Agriculture, before receiving a more than two-thirds vote from members of the state House and Senate this year, clearing the way for the November ballot.

If passed, the right to food would be added to the current 24 rights in the constitution, which guarantee, among other things, freedom of religion, rights of accused persons, right to petition, to keep and bear arms and rights to private property. The rights are not specific laws in and of themselves but codify the liberties Mainers share. From there, they shape law.

The rights are also not absolute. For instance, while you have the right to bear arms, you cannot do so if you are a felon. You have the right to assemble, but in some places that requires taking out a local permit. The Department of Agriculture would continue to have oversight responsibilities where food is concerned, and an amendment would not abolish the need to adhere to existing laws.

Federal laws, such as the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 (amended in 1978), The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act of 2019 and the Endangered Species Act would still apply, contrary to the opposition argument that a yes vote would open the door to animal cruelty and abuse.

Opponents also say the measure will not “fix” Maine’s food-related problems, including hunger. Fair enough, but that’s not the point. A constitution lays out the foundation. From there, we build.

Question 3 has been well thought out, has received overwhelming bipartisan support from Maine’s lawmakers and would give strength to future laws aimed at addressing hunger and food insecurity in the state. For those reasons, we are voting “yes” on Question 3.

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