Americans assert 'inalienable right' to grow their own food

US state of Maine has passed a constitutional amendment that gives residents greater freedom to shun the corporate food chain

Lori Larson keeps nine chickens at her home in the artists’ colony of Ogunquit, Maine. Photo: David Millward
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Fed up with depleted supermarket shelves, soaring prices and corporate domination of the supply chain, more and more Americans are looking to their backyards or to local producers to get food on the table.

The movement has been growing for years but is being galvanised by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has laid bare America’s reliance on its just-in-time food-delivery system and highlighted how large corporations can play an outsize influence on what people eat.

“We have to bring food production closer to the people who are consuming it,” said Betsy Garrold, a homesteader and president of the campaign group Food for Maine’s Future.

Maine, which imports 92 per cent of its food, recently passed an amendment to the state constitution that gives residents an “unalienable right” to grow and produce their own food.

Campaigners see the Maine referendum as a major moment in the “backyard-to-table” campaign and other states appear set to follow suit, with similar legislation being considered in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Oklahoma.

Other states — including Rhode Island, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee — are debating “cottage food laws” that would let smallholdings and backyard farmers sell to the public without being subject to strict standards on time and temperature controls.

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“We need to re-localise our food and break the stranglehold of the corporate commodified system,” Ms Garrold said.

President Joe Biden last month blamed the four big corporations that control more than half the markets in beef, pork and poultry for runaway food prices.

They “dominate the markets, pay ranchers less for the cattle they grow, charge consumers more for beef — hamburger meat, whatever they’re buying. Prices are up,” the president said.

One sponsor of Maine’s amendment, Republican Billy Bob Faulkingham, described the state’s current system that relies so heavily on food imports as “unsustainable”.

A solution, food advocates argue, is to make it easier for people to produce their own livestock and food products and sell them to neighbours.

Passed by 61 per cent of voters in November, Maine’s amendment gives people a “natural, inherent and inalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing".

In Maine, small family farmers — including some operating out of their backyards — now have a right to grow and sell food without having to adhere to the same regulations as larger producers.

Supporters say these regulations are stacked in favour of the corporate food industry.

For example, federal law requires all animals to be inspected before and after slaughter, irrespective of the size of the producer.

Small farmers in most of Maine are subject to the same regulations as industrial-scale agribusiness companies, with a person milking three cows being treated the same way as a large-scale producer, Ms Garrold explained.

“A small producer is expected to build dairy parlours which can cost thousands of dollars, which is not economically feasible,” she said.

“Small-scale chicken producers were subject to inspection. They had to take the birds to a major inspected facility.”

Other cases included a farmer with one cow being classed as a “milk distributor” — subject to the same rules as big producers — because he had a sign at the end of his driveway saying he was selling raw milk.

Opponents say Maine’s measure is overly vague and poses risks to food safety and animal welfare.

They also argue residents could end up trying to raise livestock in their backyards in built-up urban areas.

“If I have a constitutional and inalienable right to produce my own food, does that mean I can have a pig in my backyard in Portland?” asked farmer and former Maine legislator Marge Kilkelly.

“Or, if I am renting an apartment which bans pets, can I have two goats because they provide milk for my family?”

Lori Larson, who keeps nine chickens at her home in the artists’ colony of Ogunquit, got rid of her noisy rooster out of consideration for her neighbours.

But theoretically, the Maine law will tilt the legal balance in favour of a rooster’s owner rather than people living nearby.

Ms Larson’s chickens provide her with eggs, which she eats herself or gives away. She supported the constitutional change.

“If we are raising animals in our backyard, we are not interfering with our neighbours,” she said.

“In general, what you do in your backyard, as long as it doesn't hurt anybody, should be your own business.”

Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, said there are plenty of concerns over the amendment.

“Our list is pretty extensive, but it won’t come into play until somebody gets sick from food,” she said.

Food rights advocates such as Niaz Dorry, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, argue changes are essential for the US, where more than 40 per cent of adults are obese.

“It gives access to food which our DNA recognises as nutritious, as opposed to unidentifiable food objects pumped with chemicals at prices which are artificially low,” she told The National.

“This reverses the destructive food system which has been killing us.”

The Maine law will likely see legal challenges, with the extent to which it is enacted ultimately decided in the courts.

Updated: February 17, 2022, 12:00 PM