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House Backs Constitutional Changes to Protect Mainers' Right to Food Choices

AUGUSTA — House lawmakers voted Tuesday to move forward with a proposed constitutional amendment declaring Mainers have a “right to food freedom,” a step that could increase tensions among local food producers, government regulators and the agribusiness industry.

The amendment contains declarations of Mainers’ “natural, inherent and unalienable right” to grow, acquire and consume food of their own choosing. Yet the lofty-sounding proposal stems from the growing debate in Maine and nationally over what some “local foods” advocates and small farmers view as over-regulation by the government.

The proposed amendment – which would need voters’ ratification – comes after more than a dozen Maine towns have adopted “food sovereignty” ordinances declaring that farmers can sell directly to consumers, without government licensing or inspection.

“It is time to take back the food freedom that our ancestors enjoyed,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, sponsor of the constitutional amendment and co-chair of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

If voters approve the proposed amendment, Maine would become the first state in the nation to write into its constitution rights regarding citizens’ ability to grow, buy and eat food. The amendment also would seek to guarantee Maine residents’ right to “saving and exchanging seeds,” an issue playing out in the courts nationally between farmers and producers of patent-protected seeds.

Supporters contend the amendment is necessary to address excessive regulation and provide a legal defense in the courts for “food freedom” issues.

But while supporters insist the proposal would not invalidate any food safety laws, critics warned that the amendment’s vague language could carry sweeping, unintended consequences in the areas of inspections and food safety regulation. Critics also questioned why the measure was even needed.

“We don’t need to change the constitution of the state of Maine to allow for something that is already happening and not being denied to anybody that I have ever heard of,” said Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, whose family operates one of the state’s largest apple orchard businesses.