Third-generation dairy farmer Fred Stone pauses before forking up a load of hay for one of the few remaining cows on his spread in Arundel on Friday, April 15, 2022. Stone was forced to slaughter most of his herd after finding high levels of PFAS "forever" chemicals on his land in 2016. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Josh Mangin is a doctoral student in the leadership program at the University of Southern Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is the graduate media fellow of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Recently,  a bill was proposed that would allow bow and crossbow hunting on Sunday in the state of Maine. It is not uncommon to hear advocates who want to remove the Sunday hunting ban cite the 2021 right to food amendment, which dictates that all individuals within the state have a the right to “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.”

The debate about hunting has brought more light to the right to food amendment – many are still unsure what exactly this amendment means — and how it will be enacted in the state of Maine. However, recent reports of various contamination due to industrial chemicals and other hazardous materials in our food, air, and water supply, brings up the question: If Mainers have a right to pursue, grow, and consume food for health and wellbeing, then what does it mean if the local food around us is not safe to eat?

The same year the right to food amendment was passed, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife ordered a  Do Not Eat advisory for deer located in the greater Fairfield area due to PFAS contamination. A study was recently published that concluded that eating one serving of freshwater fish in Maine would be equivalent to drinking a month’s worth of PFAS-contaminated water. In addition, multiple farms in Maine have reported PFAS contamination on their land, and some are seeking the state of Maine to establish a buy-back program.

It is clear that food contamination from industrial chemicals has significant negative economic, social, and health effects, and seems to be infringing on our right to healthy food. Simply put, in order to adequately utilize our right to food, it is therefore vital to find ways to address current environmental contamination and to prevent future industrial chemical and hazardous waste pollution.

Unfortunately, industrial chemicals and hazardous material contaminating our environment is not new, nor unique to Maine. I grew up in western Massachusetts and during my childhood the impacts of contaminated land and water was a frequent part of the community life, due to the local waterways being a former dumping ground for PCBs and other chemical by-products from the various industries in the areas. PCBs were banned in 1979, however, decades following the ban, it became more clear of the long-term health effects, such as cancer and mood disorders such as depression.

For a leadership class, I recently shared my experience growing up in contaminated lands, where ponds would not freeze in the dead of winter, where we could not eat the fish we caught, and it was not uncommon to come across dead animals. After sharing my experience in class, I was surprised by how each classmate contributed and shared their own unique experiences, thoughts, feelings, and concerns, regarding the possible negative health effects of industrial chemical and hazardous waste. A common response pertained to feeling like something needs to be done, but not sure what or how.

With all the negative reports and repercussions, it is easy to feel a sense of despair and to feel generally overwhelmed. However, I am hopeful that as these concerns come more to the forefront of public awareness, an opportunity is created to use both reactive and proactive approaches in order to prevent future environmental contamination. If we have a right to food, then we probably need to continue supporting conservation, sustainability, and even regenerative practices that help ensure that we are able to consume food that contributes positively to our bodily health and well-being, now and in the future.