In this Sept. 17, 2021, file photo, Carolyn Retberg leads a cow to pasture after the morning milking at the Quill's End Farm in Penobscot. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Voters approved a referendum Tuesday adding the “right to food” to the Maine Constitution, setting up possible legal battles down the road about what the newly enshrined right means.

The Bangor Daily News and Decision Desk HQ, its national election results partner, called the election at 9:48 p.m., when the “yes” side was leading with 60.6 percent of the vote with 53 percent of precincts reporting.

[election_race race=”10003″ source=”local” from=”shortcode” rr_title=”” rr_message=”” rr_link=””]

The ballot question, which passed the Legislature earlier this year with two-thirds of lawmakers in favor, adds “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing” to the Maine Constitution, alongside other enumerated rights including religion freedom and the right to own firearms. It also protects the right to save and exchange seeds. Maine is the first state to enshrine such a right in its constitution.

Advocates argued the amendment recognized the importance of food and could be a shield against future corporate or government attempts to limit individuals from growing their own crops. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine  also backed it, saying it could be used to stop future attempts to ban certain types of hunting. The issue split farmers in the state, with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in favor and the Maine Farm Bureau against it.

Opponents of the referendum warned the new right could be to undo any number of current laws, including food safety regulations, municipal ordinances limiting where animals can be kept and restrictions on potentially hazardous chemicals sometimes used in farming. Animal welfare advocates also raised concerns that it could lead to the repeal of current animal cruelty laws.

Proponents of the referendum insisted that current laws would not be affected by the change to the constitution. That question could be resolved definitively in the coming years if plaintiffs bring lawsuits against any existing regulations on the basis that they conflict with the right to food, leaving it up to the courts to decide whether those laws amount to reasonable restrictions on a new constitutional right.

Betsy Shell, 60, of Belfast said she made a last-minute decision but ultimately voted in favor of the amendment.

“It’s complicated, but I feel we have enough fail-safes in place to prevent animal cruelty,” she said, “and I certainly believe in people being able to consume whatever they want.”

BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.