"Pursuant to the home rule authority granted to municipalities by Title 30-A, section 3001 and by the Constitution of Maine, Article VIII, Part Second, and pursuant to section 201-A, and notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, a municipal government may regulate by ordinance local food systems and the State shall recognize such ordinances." --An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, Maine state law
The northeastern region of the United States known as New England has been the breeding ground of revolutionary ideas since well before the first shot of the American Revolutionary War, the "shot heard 'round the world," rang out in Concord, Massachusetts in 1775. More recently, this year in fact, a citizen's movement in Maine has taken another historic stand, shaking off a form of contemporary tyranny by convincing the Maine State Legislature to pass, and Maine Governor Paul LePage to sign, Maine's new "Food Sovereignty Law." What? That doesn't sound too earth-shaking to you? What the heck is a food sovereignty law?
Here's what the new Maine law will do:
"With a stroke of his pen, Gov. Paul LePage last week enacted landmark legislation putting Maine in the forefront of the food sovereignty movement. LePage signed LD 725, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, legitimizing the authority of towns and communities to enact ordinances regulating local food distribution free from state regulatory control. According to food sovereignty advocates, the law is the first of its kind in the country...
"...Supporters of food sovereignty want local food producers to be exempt from state licensing and inspections governing the selling of food as long as the transactions are between the producers and the customers for home consumption or when the food is sold and consumed at community events such as church suppers." Bangor Daily News, June 20, 2017.
Local governments in Maine can now opt to take local control of their food system by passing local "food sovereignty ordinances." Many towns had acted prior to the law's passage. Beginning in 2011, the first 5 towns enacted food sovereignty at the local level. Every year since then, more towns have stood together to enact an ever widening band of food sovereignty. The state has now recognized local control regarding food systems (although federal meat and poultry authorities are currently challenging Maine's Food Sovereignty provisions). Since the law's passage, however, more than 30 more towns are interested and/or working toward adoption of the Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance.
In our part of the country, we witness the economic devastation that decades corporate control over our food system has caused our local rural areas. Our pastoral landscapes are littered with abandoned dairy barns, empty chicken coops, deserted meat processing facilities that once were the engine of local self-reliance and economic vitality. We watch as our local wealth flows out of our communities when our grocery money leaves town to buy corporate industrial food from far away in place of the locally-produced foods that have for most of human history, been our main source of sustenance. In the face of this, what happened in Maine was a people's revolt. It was also a declaration that the People of the United States will constitutionally retain the right to food and with it the right to feed each other. We can grow our own food, we can process our own food, we can share our own food in our own communities without being required to have state or federal licenses, but to do so, we must vigorously assert our food sovereignty rights.
Sovereignty is a hard word to spell, and a challenging political concept to understand. Sovereignty means the right to govern "without any interference from outside sources or bodies" (Wikipedia). You can have a "Sovereign Monarch," meaning an individual person who possesses the right to govern-- to decide unilaterally what does and what does not constitute law and how the laws are upheld and enforced throughout the monarchy. Monarchs enjoy sovereignty until such time as their sovereignty might be questioned (see Game of Thrones ;-) ) Sovereignty is an arrangement. Either the greater society, foreign and domestic, accepts, sometimes unwillingly, the sovereignty claims of those who make them, or the claims are not accepted and struggles ensue, often to name a new sovereign.
"Sovereign nations" are social constructs whereby the occupants of defined geographic areas believe collectively (or by decree in dictatorships and the like) what does and does not constitute law and how the laws are upheld and enforced within the nation "without any interference from outside sources or bodies." Societies foreign to a sovereign nation have the option to accept the nation's sovereignty, and often do, even in times of war, or not to accept it. It is a convenient political structure, well suited to those most able to assert it by military means and militarily resist any "interference from outside sources or bodies." Consequently, political sovereignty in the form of the nation-state has been adopted over most of the globe, seldom, really, to the maximum benefit of the nation's inhabitants, but, that's the world we live in.
Sovereignty is divisible. Even a king with absolute power must delegate executive authority to other individuals and political bodies. Nation-states have governmental divisions-- counties, municipalities, townships, provinces, etc. These divisions are given authority over prescribed portions of the nation's political and judicial business as agents of the sovereign nation, therefore, each division has some measure of sovereignty in its own right.
Sovereignty can be a power conveyed or a claim that is made. Can anyone claim sovereignty? You could appoint yourself Emperor tomorrow, but predictably, your claim would not be accepted by a sufficient portion of the rest of society for you to be able to exercise your power. Likely, you would be perceived by the recognized sovereign as "interference from outside sources or bodies" and it might not go well for you. Any sovereign entity, no matter how limited its sovereignty, bristles at anything it considers to be "interference from outside sources or bodies."
Sovereignty implies a right, the right to govern, whether it's governing a large population or your own individual actions. The founders of the United States of America considered it their right to establish a better government than British Rule. And they said people always have the right to abolish governments that aren't working. The people who drafted the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights spoke much about rights in their debates prior to signature of the final documents. In the declaration of Independence the rebels refer to "inalienable rights" and list life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness among them and specified that they were not limiting inalienable rights to just those three. An inalienable right is one that is not and cannot be made alien to (apart from) the human being who possesses it. Even when an inalienable right is being violated, it still belongs to its holder, so say those who recognize inalienable rights. You might not find too many ISIS terrorists recognizing inalienable rights. Like the concept of sovereignty, the existence of inalienable rights and the ability of people to enjoy them are dependent on how strongly individuals and societies recognize and respect those rights and understand how to apply the concepts in their day-to-day lives.
Sovereignty and rights, as concepts, intersect each other just like the warp and weft of woven fabric. The fabric cannot exist without one or the other. For an individual or group to act in accordance with a right is governing, whether or not a government or governmental body is involved in the process. An individual or a group may exercise a right by deciding to take a certain action. The decision to act is like issuing a piece of legislation and the legitimacy of the legislation derives from the sovereignty of the individual or group that presupposes the possession of the right. For example, to injure or kill in self-defense is not a crime because you are acting on your inalienable right to your own life. It must be said that such rights don't exist in a vacuum. In our example, the justification for causing injury or death in self-defense must be deemed legitimate by the greater society. In some cases, only the person who was self-defending really knows that the self-defense was legitimate, yet it still might not do that person much good if the greater society disagrees. It's all very imperfect. History is the record of this give and take.
Some rights are conveyed to people by government authorities (for example, the temporary 'right' to drive a car on public roads aka your deriver's license) and some exist independent from government authority. The latter are the inalienable rights, sometimes referred to as "natural rights" and even "sovereign rights."
The writers of the U.S. Constitution grappled with the issue of rights when they debated whether, if certain rights are listed in amendments to the constitution, could rights that are not listed not be considered to be rights? No, they determined. Rights, after all, predate laws. Rights predate civilization. Rights predate language. Rights make individuals sovereign as to those rights, if your society happens to adhere to the radical philosophy of liberty espoused by the founders of the American Republic. The American Revolution was an anti-monarchy struggle as much as a pro-democracy struggle. Eight hundred years ago, by the declarations in the Magna Carta, the fuse of individual liberty was lit under the shadow of monarchist absolute power in England.
And even before that, "in the 5th Century BCE, Greek philosophers of the Sophist School argued that all human beings are equal by nature. Laws and institutions that failed to respect this basic equality, e.g. slavery, were thus branded as being contrary to nature.
"Both Plato and his disciple Aristotle, each in his own way, argued for a common nature of being human, which is realized in a legally instituted community, i.e. the “polis.” Aristotle goes so far as to define human being as a “social animal,” more specifically as a “political animal” (zoon politikon). The foundations for living together as human beings are liberty, equality and justice. The civil society is a community of free human beings." http://www.global-ethic-now.de
After spirited debate, the founders of the American republic compromised (an art of politics that sometimes seems as outdated as powdered wigs in our contentious 21st century). The ninth amendment, part of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. constitution reads, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage [other rights] retained by the people."
"In our republican forms of government, the absolute sovereignty of the nation is in the people of the nation; and the residuary sovereignty of each state, not granted to any of its public functionaries, is in the people of the state (A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856).
Wikipedia's excellent article on the 9th Amendment ends with this summary of the issue:
"The Ninth Amendment explicitly bars denial of unenumerated rights if the denial is based on the enumeration of certain rights in the Constitution [meaning, if someone claims you do not have a certian right by pointing to the Bill of Rights and declaring "that right is not named in the constitution and therefore cannot exist," the claim would be denied], but this amendment does not explicitly bar denial of unenumerated rights if the denial is based on the enumeration of certain powers in the Constitution [meaning, for example, since the constitution prohibits slavery, a right retained by the people to own slaves would be denied]. It is to that enumeration of powers that the courts have pointed, in order to determine the extent of the unenumerated rights mentioned in the Ninth Amendment [meaning the courts determine if any right asserted by any person is a constitutional right-- that the right does not violate the U.S. Constitution.]."
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the phrase "sovereign citizen" is not unfamiliar to anyone who follows the news. A sovereign citizen is someone who claims to be an emperor over his own person and doesn't have to put up with any "interference from outside sources or bodies" such as the U.S. government, its subdivisions, or the U.S Constitution. They don't think they should have to pay taxes and they don't think they need to carry a driver's license. Sovereign citizens don't accept the sovereignty of the U.S government, but there are too few of them for their claim to be accepted. People who claim to be "sovereign citizens" are usually selfish sociopaths who will defend their claims to such rights, but will likely not lift a finger to defend yours. We are not talking about "sovereign citizens" in this discussion.
For now, the sovereignty of the U.S. nation state is accepted and individual rights are enumerated on the basis of their compliance with the U.S. Constitution. "Because the rights protected by the Ninth Amendment are not specified, they are referred to as "unenumerated". The Supreme Court has found that unenumerated rights include such important rights as the right to travel, the right to vote, the right to privacy, and the right to make important decisions about one's health care or body" (wikipedia). This is why, for example, under most circumstances, when you are in a hospital or under the care of a physician, you have the ultimate decision-making power over your treatment.
So, the supreme court has agreed that individuals are sovereign, not like emperors, but constitutionally insofar as their right to travel, their right to vote, their right to privacy, and their right to make important decisions about their own health care or body. Even so, these rights sometimes get battered in the courts. They must constantly be "retained by the people" and re-retained. It doesn't happen once and sticks forever. Freedom (the ability to enjoy ones rights) is a constant struggle, so the saying goes.
That last one-- the "right to make important decisions about one's health care or body"-- that's a big one. Many issues hinge around this, but we're going to talk about food. Nothing compares to food as a way in which you take care of your health and care for your body. Does it follow that you have a right to food?
Let's go back. Picture yourself as some species of primate precursor in Homo Sapiens' evolutionary ancestral tree, some time ago, predating even simple tool use. You were furry and traveled on all fours. You were in charge of how you obtained your food. You spent much of each day taking care of your need for food and you had developed unique and innovative means to satisfy your hunger. Your existence was predicated on the exercise of your power over your food supply and your ability to avoid becoming someone else's food supply, otherwise known as "interference from outside sources or bodies".
If there ever was a birthright, for how ever many births it took that fuzzy little lemur to evolve into you, it is our individual and collective right to obtain our own sustenance throughout our lives. It is our Food Sovereignty.
Food Sovereignty is a term that is being heard more and more often in discussions of food systems, like the one you are part of. It is even more difficult a concept to describe. In most of the world it means the right of indigenous food systems to be free from coercive and oppressive economic pressures brought to bear by corporate, industrial, mono-crop, export-oriented, extractive agriculture that threatens local food systems. In the developing world, sometimes referred to ethnocentrically as "the South," communities might be waging food sovereignty struggles against unjust land-grabs by foreign corporations or exploitative labor conditions at oligarchic plantations. For the developed world, Food Sovereignty means something surprisingly similar, even if circumstances are vastly different.
In 1993, an international conference was convened that included representatives from farmers' organizations from Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America and Africa. One outcome of the conference was the creation of an international organization called La Via Campesina (from Spanish meaning 'the campesino way', or 'the peasants' way'). Here's how La Via Campesina is described by Wikipedia:
[La Via Campesina] describes itself as "an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe". It is a coalition of over 148 organizations, advocating family-farm-based sustainable agriculture and was the group that coined the term "food sovereignty." La Via Campesina has carried out a campaign to defend farmer's seeds, a campaign to stop violence against women, a campaign for the recognition of the rights of peasants, a global campaign for agrarian reform, and others ... The movement's main issues are agrarian reform and water, biodiversity and genetic resources, food sovereignty and trade, women, human rights, migrations and rural workers, sustainable peasant's agriculture, and youth. In recent years, the movement has placed greater emphasis on gender issues and women's rights, and strengthened its opposition to transnational corporations. It has also focused on gaining recognition for the discourse around food sovereignty, reclaiming the term "peasant" and recreating a shared peasant identity across national borders and cultures. La Via Campesina also partners with other social movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to strengthen its international presence ... La Via Campesina introduced the idea of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit in 1996 as "the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems."
Okay, Stop. Wait. Peasants? Why are we talking about peasants in the same breath as we're talking about a food sovereignty law in the state of Maine in North America? There aren't any peasants in North America.
Hmmm... Have you heard of "income inequality?"
"In the United States, income inequality, or the gap between the rich and everyone else, has been growing markedly, by every major statistical measure, for some 30 years ... Income disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent. Americans in the top 1 percent tower stunningly higher. They average over 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. But that gap pales in comparison to the divide between the nation’s top 0.1 percent and everyone else. Americans at this lofty level are taking in over 198 times the income of the bottom 90 percent." --inequality.org
In other words, to paraphrase John Lennon, we're all fucking peasants, as far as I can see.
So, that's the situation. You can deny it. You can reject it. Or, you can embrace it. I suggest the latter. There is no shame in joining the ranks of the global peasantry. Some of the most beautiful, most noble, most down-to-earth and most hard-working people on the planet are peasants. The other thing to keep in mind is, there are a whole lot more of us peasants than there are the wealthy elite. If we organize, we can make change. Since the year 209 BC, there have been 110 "peasant revolutions." Granted, the vast majority of them have been brutally put down and ended in failure, but the peasant spirit is resilient. It should also be noted that a few of the successful peasant rebellions have changed history. If there ever was a time that was ripe for a history-changing revolution, it is now. Since the food system is so basic to societal organization, the food system is a good place to start.
In the United States, our food system which was once the foundation of local, self-reliant economies has been taken over by mega corporations whose only interest is the next quarterly earnings report. The achievement of profit supersedes any other consideration including your economic security, your physical health, the purity of your water supply or the ability of your climate to sustain life on the planet.
When corporations rule, one of the first things they do is take control of the food system. They do this using their economic power and their undue influence on the workings of the government. Here are two examples of how this works:
The first "supermarket" appeared in the city of Spokane, Washington in 1949. It featured gleaming aisles stacked with hundreds of brightly-labeled items. The sheer buying power the company wielded allowed it to undercut the prices of existing grocery stores and attract price-conscious shoppers. But what of those existing grocery stores? They were what you call "mom and pop" grocery stores-- small, family-owned businesses. The lineage of many of them could be traced back to the pioneer days. A large percentage of the food they sold was produced in the Spokane region, otherwise known as the Spokane foodshed. These stores had long-standing relationships with local producers, most of whom were small-scale family farmers. The economies of surrounding towns and villages gained much of their strength from the food dollars coming from the near-by population center of Spokane into the pockets of those small producers. The appearance of the supermarket began to spell the demise of the small-scale, regional food producer as more and more of the food sold in Spokane was imported into the region by supermarkets from far away industrial-scale food conglomerates able to exploit low-wage workers, externalize costs and undercut the prices asked by local producers. The economies of surrounding towns suffered steady, irreversible (?) decline.
During the same time period, one begins to see an increase in regulatory oversight of food production, especially as it related to meat, dairy and value-added foods. This trend affected small-scale producers disproportionally. The cost of food production facilities began to rise as licensing requirements mandated expensive equipment and more record-keeping.
The public school system in the United States, as a mechanism of social control, that came into being during the 19th century owes a lot of its design to the concepts employed in putting together the notorious "American Indian Boarding Schools" that predated them-- regimentation, systematic indoctrination, corporal punishment and the like. Similarly, during the same period in history, the bureaucratic approach to American food regulation owes much of its conceptualization to the manner in which America's "mandatory milk pasteurization laws" arose. Here's how. During the 19th century, American cities grew and grew. With the growing populations of those cities grew the demand for milk since, for centuries, families raising children had known the benefits that fresh milk bestows upon growing children. Distance between the green cow pastures of the countryside and thirsty city dwellers also grew. This opened up the market potential of cow dairies located within cities. Now, the numerous breweries and distilleries that were located in cities produced ton upon ton of spent grain "slop" as a byproduct of alcoholic beverage production. Entrepreneurs soon discovered that cows, kept in confined quarters within cities could be fed this slop and produce milk that could be sold to satisfy the burgeoning urban demand. These were some of America's first factory farms and they would become guilty of all the horrible things that factory are farms are known for today, and then some. Among these were stink (the "to high heaven" variety), animal abuse, foul pollution of waterways and "food" of dubious quality (see the book The Untold Story of Milk, by Ron Schmid, for details about this history).
The milk from these "swill dairies" was produced in horrendous, unsanitary conditions. The diet of brewery slop was unnatural to cows that evolved to eat grass and is known to promote the growth of intestinal bacteria that are pathogenic to humans. The milk was often diluted with untreated, contaminated water as a nefarious way to increase profits. Infant mortality rose. That did not go unnoticed and caused much public outcry. That, combined with a poor understanding of the biology of human pathogens, soon caused governments to mandate that the newly developed process of pasteurization be utilized for all milk production. That meant that even the much cleaner and safer "country milk" from pastured cows that was now able to be shipped in ice into cities on trains, had to be pasteurized. So now the farmer was not able to sell direct to stores and individuals and pocket the money. Their milk had to go to a central processing facility since building such a plant was beyond the means of most farmers. The processing facility sold the milk and took a big "middle-man" cut of the proceeds.
The owners of these processing facilities loved the arrangement. They loved that government was mandating the milk go through their facilities. They loved the profit that could be made essentially off the hard labor of the farmers who provided the milk. They loved the relative low cost of operating their machinery. Soon, many of the processing facilities, even the ones ostensibly organized as "farmer co-ops," made the farmers subservient to them, primarily through usury. The processing plants amassed the bulk of the profits from milk sales. Financially strapped farmers sought loans from the processing plants. As you might guess, it wasn't long before the processors owned many of the farms. But the model-- government mandates about food production claimed to be based on science and protecting public health-- was adopted throughout the food production sector of the economy. Bureaucrats in public health agencies perpetuated this trend, often holding their office as part of the incestuous "revolving door" where regulators come out of the industries they are charged with regulating and go back to those industries again if they have performed satisfactorily in the industry's interests during their public tenure.
All through the 20th century in Washington state, if you grew the raspberries, you could make make raspberry pie in your home kitchen or farmhouse and sell it to the general public. The grower or producer of a food was free to perform value-added processing to many types of foods without state licensing or oversight. This arrangement wasn't questioned. It was the way things had been done for millennia. The Washington State Department of Health did away with this long-standing tradition in the early 2000's in the name of public health, but what they really did was take away the right of Washington residents to grow food and feed their neighbors.
Well, the interesting thing is, you can't take away an inalienable right. Governments try to all the time. Governments often see rights as a threat to their sovereignty-- as "interference from outside sources or bodies"-- such is the corruption that comes along with power if unchecked by a vigilant citizenry. Governments do so at their own peril.
In Maine, the citizenry exercised its power to check government excess. Newfoodeconomy.com, a food systems news portal, wrote earlier this year:
"With a libertarian flourish of the pen, Maine’s governor Paul LePage signed the nation’s first food sovereignty bill into law ... Now, if a Maine town wants to allow raw milk sales, or give license to a coterie of home jerky and granola artisans, it has that right.
"To democratic state Sen. Troy Jackson, a logger from the state’s northern reaches who sponsored the bill, it’s a welcome return to the Maine of yore. 'Years and years ago, this is how people in Maine traded goods and services with each other,' he says. 'But with all the requirements government puts on you now, it’s become far too costly and onerous to do business. Many people were pushed into the shadows, almost the black market.'"
Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington are, notably, all, like Maine, "home rule states," meaning that their state constitutions make provisions for local governments to make their own laws that elsewhere might fall under the State's jurisdiction and in some cases may supersede State-level authority. These would be the states to bring the North American struggle for food sovereignty to next. Peasants of America unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.
Now it is incumbent of the citizens of the other 49 states to stand up and likewise reclaim our right to produce food and exchange it with our neighbors and make our own rules as to how this is done. We do not exist to be points of revenue generation for corporations or government agencies. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We possess sovereign rights to feed ourselves, our families and our communities. We must defend these rights. We must organize, as did the citizens of Maine. We must unify behind the banner of food sovereignty and march forth until we have reclaimed our birthright. It's our food. These are our bodies. Fear us if you stand in our way.
Last minute update: Jeez, I thought I was finished writing this article! Only proves once again, freedom is a constant struggle. As I was putting the finishing touches on this article in hopes of having it ready in time for my scheduled Sept. 1 publication date for the second edition of the Inland FoodWise Newsletter, I happened to do an Internet search for some tid bit of information related to food sovereignty and was surprised to see a new post that had been posted 4 hours prior. The headline of the story, dated Aug. 31, 2017 was "[Maine Governor] LePage calls for emergency special session of Legislature over new 'food sovereignty' law." Apparently, bureaucrats with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), unhappy about "interference from outside sources or bodies" with their perceived, and yes, legal sovereignty over their regulatory turf, sent a mildly threatening letter to to Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of Maine Department of Agriculture. The July 6th letter says, in part, "the [federal] Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS, part of USDA) is concerned that the Food Sovereignty Act, if implemented as currently written, would contravene Federal food safety laws and regulations." The USDA letter threatens a federal take-over of Maine's state-run meat and poultry inspection programs "given the broad authority that the Food Sovereignty Act appears to provide to municipalities to promulgate ordinances that the State would be required to follow." If the state cannot satisfactorily demonstrate to USDA that local meat and poultry regulations will be "at least equal to" those of the federal USDA inspection programs when the law goes into effect, it could trigger that action, but that would be a worst case scenario. Maine's unique Food Sovereignty Act is scheduled to go into effect Nov. 1, but the Governor has called for an emergency session of the state legislature to address the issues raised in the USDA letter. Governor LePage believes the Food Sovereignty Act might need to be amended to avert a federal take-over of the state's own meat and poultry inspection programs. The letter from USDA states that Maine could be designated in non-compliance on or after the date of enactment if the "equal to" problem isn't amended. There is likely pressure on the governor from that industry to "do something," but, according to Elizabeth Gamsky Rich, Acting President of and Chief Litigator for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the letter is primarily a request for information about how Maine plans to handle local food ordinances while remaining in compliance with federal law. The Inland FoodWise Newsletter interviewed Ms. Rich just prior to press time and she expressed confidence that there are a variety of ways the state of Maine can satisfy the USDA without "throwing the baby [the food sovereignty law] out with the bathwater." Ms. Rich pointed to special arrangements that have been made between the USDA and the states of Wyoming and North Dakota which have similar "food freedom" laws, albeit not quite as far-reaching as Maine's new law. She said as long as the USDA is willing to talk, the people of Maine should be able to keep their newly won food sovereignty without much USDA interference. Perhaps all the legislature needs to do, instead of amending the law, is simply to direct the Maine Department of Agriculture to provide the information that the USDA seeks. No date has been set for the special legislative session although it looks like it will be in October, but the state's scrappy food sovereignty community is no doubt abuzz. We'll keep you posted.