AUGUSTA, Maine — Earlier this year, Maine’s most prominent hunting and fishing advocacy group was on the sidelines of the fight over adding the “right to food” to the Maine Constitution, saying it would not have much effect.
But with the Nov. 2 election approaching, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine — which played key roles in defeating referendums over the past two decades that would have banned dominant methods of bear hunting and established background checks for private gun purchases — added its name to the list of Question 3 backers last week, saying a yes vote would protect hunting rights.
It joins an odd political alliance that also includes roughly three-quarters of state lawmakers, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Maine Green Independent Party, among others. Opponents include animal welfare groups that warred with the sportsman’s group over hunting, the Maine Farm Bureau Association and the Maine Municipal Association.
The low-key right-to-food referendum has become a Rorschach test for disparate groups interested in food policy in the waning days of the election. It reflects diverging attempts to weigh potential harms of future attempts to restrict local food production and consumption with the possibility of unintended legal challenges to current laws that few disagree with.
Question 3, based on legislation backed by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, and Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, would add “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing,” as well as the right to save and exchange seeds, to the Maine Constitution.
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s position changed after legal analysis this fall determined that the amendment’s language on harvesting would also apply to hunting and fishing in addition to agriculture, said David Trahan, the group’s executive director.
He still does not see the amendment as having immediate policy effects, but argues it could be a useful backstop if lawmakers or a governor’s administration put forward extreme measures in the future, such as outright ban on moose hunting.
“I’m hoping that we’ll never have to use this to defend hunting, because if we have to use it to defend hunting, it’s because by the Legislature or by referendum, a form of hunting was banned,” Trahan said.
Some farmers have put forward a similar argument in favor of the amendment, arguing that it ensures current agricultural practices, including the exchange of seeds, are not restricted in the future. Opponents of the question, on the other hand, have portrayed the lack of short-term effects as a reason to reject the amendment, arguing that it is either unnecessary or would have unintended consequences outside of what backers have outlined.
Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, who runs a farm primarily producing maple syrup and hay, worries that the amendment’s language is “vague” and could result in lawsuits challenging existing regulations, including food safety laws. A constitutional amendment would be more difficult to correct than a regular law, she noted.
“I’m very concerned that our statutes will be fought in court and be deemed unconstitutional, and food safety will go away,” Kinney said.
In the event of a lawsuit challenging an existing law on the basis of the right to food, it would be up to a judge to decide whether the regulation was reasonable. Proponents note the right to food would be added to the section of the Maine Constitution outlining other rights, from freedom of religion to the right to own firearms, all of which are subject to restrictions.
The proposed amendment says the right would not extend to situations involving “trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources,” and federal animal cruelty laws would continue to supersede Maine’s constiution.
The debate over Question 3 has been overshadowed this year amid the highly contentious — and expensive — referendum aiming to block the Central Maine Power Co. corridor. Campaign spending on the right to food has been nearly nonexistent.
A political group supporting the question, Right to Food for Maine, has raised just over $12,000, largely from individual donors. The primary group opposing it is backed by Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, but has spent just a few hundred dollars so far, according to state campaign finance filings.
The question has not fallen along typical partisan lines. It made it onto November’s ballot after achieving a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature, as is required for a constitutional amendment. While supporters of the question have pointed to potential legal protections, they have also framed much of their case around broader ideas of food as a fundamental right and rejecting the notion that the government can tell anyone what to eat.
“We should never be afraid of freedom,” Trahan said.