In the upcoming November 2021 election, voters in Maine will be presented with an amendment to the state constitution that would establish a right to food. The measure was approved for referendum by the Maine Legislature on July 2, 2021.
The proposed amendment would create a new section 25 to Article I of the Maine Constitution:
Section 25. Right to food. 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.
The measure was opposed by animal rights interests, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which argued that the measure, if adopted, would create a right to raise and harvest animals for food that is not subject to statutory limitation by animal cruelty laws. It is debatable that the measure would have that effect. The HSUS argument also does not take into account that the proposal specifically does not protect abuses of private property rights which would cover farm animals (although animal rights advocates don’t like thinking of animals as “property”). In addition, Maine animal cruelty laws already either exclude or provide an affirmative defense for conduct regarding farm animals that conforms with best management practices for animal husbandry. Given the importance that good animal husbandry practices have for most farmers, it is unlikely that those practices would be abandoned or that the adoption of a constitutional right to food would spur a sudden increase in animal cruelty.
The sponsor of the proposed amendment, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a lobsterman from Winter Harbor, described the measure as necessary to protect existing rights from future erosion:
Presently, do we need a right to grow a garden, raise livestock? No. I think today in most instances, that is a given. Jumping ahead 25 or 50 years into the future, could we see our government creating roadblocks and restrictions to the people’s right to food? Will the government be telling people what they are allowed to eat and where they can grow it? . . . Keep in mind, Constitutional amendments are there to protect our rights, not provide them.
While the effect of this amendment if adopted in Maine remains to be seen, one scenario that a state constitutional right to food might avert is the situation currently unfolding in Massachusetts. As was recently reported, in 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a referendum requiring that egg-laying chickens be provided with at least 1 and 1/2 feet of floor space each. The measure will make it illegal to sell any egg in the state, regardless of where it was produced, that does not comply with this standard. Regulations drafted by the state attorney general enforcing this restriction will take effect this October. As it turns out, the actual industry standard for egg-laying hens now is aviaries with one foot of space. Most of the eggs consumed in Massachusetts come from outside the state, but out-of-state producers that comply with the industry standard will not able to sell their eggs in Massachusetts. The result — a potential shortage of eggs in Massachusetts which, in turn, could increase food costs. This has members of the Massachusetts Legislature scrambling to change the law to allow use of the one-foot aviary standard — which some animal rights groups support and others don’t. A state constitutional right to food, like the one proposed in Maine, might have headed off the 1 and 1/2 foot referendum altogether.