Is Maine Starving or Something?

Oct. 28, 2021

A look at Maine's "right to food" amendment.

Can someone who lives in Maine, or is familiar with its politics, enlighten me as to what the heck its voters are going to be deciding with respect to food next week?

Those voters will be confronted in the Nov. 2 election with Question 3, a statewide referendum that reads, in its entirety:

Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to declare that 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?

The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was: Huh? Who, or what, is threatening Mainers’ right to grow and eat food?

Apparently my bemusement is shared by others. One observer called Question 3 “a solution in search of a problem.” Another, a member of the state veterinary board, remarked that her initial reaction to the bill was, “Oh my gosh. They've written a bill asking if puppies are cute.”

The problem is that animal welfare is very much a concern among those who oppose, or are dubious about, Question 3. They’re not worried about puppies so much as chickens, cows or hogs being raised in the backyards of amateurs who can’t handle them. The worry is that such people could use Question 3 to shield themselves against enforcement of animal-welfare laws. Similarly, Maine municipalities may find themselves hauled into court by homesteaders who claim zoning laws, nuisance laws or other measures now violate Maine’s constitution, which is why the Maine Municipal Association opposes the measure.

Question 3’s proponents say such concerns are overblown. Its originator, who farms 100 acres, insists that “when [the right to food] is threatened, we have no legal protection in court."

Personally, I’ve always been a little dubious about the initiative/referendum process. It’s too easy to manipulate voters’ emotions to get measures passed without regard to all their consequences.

There’s a bigger problem in my opinion with Question’s 3 vagueness. The highfalutin language (“natural, inherent and unalienable right”) should be a red flag; in politics, grandiose words too often are a cover for weak ideas.

Dan Shea, the director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College, while neutral on Question 3, told Maine Public Radio that “if you define a policy question as a fundamental right, then there's no debate, there's no compromise. Opponents aren't simply wrong-headed — they're oppressors." Shea pointed out that constitutional questions ultimately have to be decided by the courts, and “that’s one of the least democratic institutions that we have.”

It’s hard for me to see how this ends well. I repeat my invitation in the first paragraph: Anyone who has roots in Maine and has an opinion on Question 3, let’s hear from you.

UPDATE: The measure passed.