November saw an historic advancement in food sovereignty in the state of Maine: voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing Mainers’ Right to Food. Amid the pre-Christmas and pandemic chaos, it was a story that was easily missed but I hope you will share this story widely in the New Year and make food sovereignty part of your conversations.While Maine is in another country, we share the same bio-region and can grow relatively the same types of crops. As the topic of local food becomes increasingly more mainstream, it is valuable for New Brunswickers to keep an eye on what is happening across the border.
The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) explains, “On Tuesday, November 3, 2021, Maine voters approved an historic state constitutional amendment establishing a constitutional Right to Food. The measure added language to the state constitution providing that individuals have a “natural, inherent, and unalienable 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 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 in the harvesting, production, or acquisition of food.”
Two-thirds of the Maine Senate voted in favour of the constitutional change in July 2021, and 61% of Mainers voted in favour in a referendum on Nov. 3, 2021. The vote was a close one, with players like the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Dairy Industry arguing the legislation was too vague to cover concerns like food safety. Others raised concerns about things like animal welfare. The Right to Food does not however, override existing legislation.
Since this legislation is so broad, it is likely that it may be challenged in court. For instance if someone were to grow food on a vacant piece of property that they didn’t own (but did not cause any property damage), there might be a dispute between the grower and an absentee landlord who doesn’t want food produced there. In this case the existing property rights of the landowner would come into conflict with the right of the grower to produce food for personal consumption. This is often called “guerilla gardening” and is fairly common, especially in economically challenged urban areas.
While working legislative details out in court is a cumbersome process, it does move the mark closer to understanding food as a human right for everyone, rather than food as a consumer’s right to purchase.
This step means the most, perhaps, to the “cottage” food producer. This group includes small scale primary producers, selling items like meat, produce and value-added products like preserves and baking. Their markets are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes, farm gate stands, farmers’ markets, and other methods of community distribution.
The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), one of the oldest and largest organic associations in the United States, was a proponent of the legislation. The group said in a statement: “Maine is almost entirely reliant on food from away — currently importing more than 90% of its food supply — though we have the natural resources including landbase, soils, water, flora, fauna, climate and knowledge to be self-sufficient and enjoy a healthy, diverse, balanced and delicious diet.”
If this statistic sounds familiar, it is because New Brunswick is almost exactly the same. The N.B Department of Agriculture’s 2021 Local Food and Beverage Strategy, looks at how much of our in-province food needs are being met with local food “Excluding potatoes, NB is far from self-sufficient in the production of vegetables 7%, as well as fruit 32%, beef and veal 45%, pork 22% and grains and oilseeds 64%, partly due to climatic limitations on our growing season and partly because of NB’s reliance upon cheaper imports.”
While the Department of Agriculture works on promoting local producers, other agencies of the government like Opportunities New Brunswick focus on supporting exports as an economic driver. Our emergency food system is still reliant on the often-imported and highly-processed foods given out by food banks (which are funded through donations and grants, and do not receive regular government support). Much of our food safety regulation comes not from the province, but from the federal government.
New Brunswick has a long road to travel to get even close to self-sufficiency or food sovereignty, which the global peasants group La Via Campesina defines as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” The good news is that historically New Brunswick was nearly self-sufficient in our food production, so why should we allow anyone to convince us that we can’t be again?
What kinds of things could we do to improve our situation?
- Put a larger focus on supporting small farms growing mixed crops (including animals) and stop government support for corporate, export-driven monocultures.
- Citizens and government need to respect and support Indigenous food ways (hunting, fishing and foraging).
- Support young people and new farmers in getting access to land and capital to start farming.
- Add more infrastructure around the processing of local food, so that our food doesn’t need to leave the province and then get shipped back for sale.
- Focus on production on parcels of land that are under 10 acres, and are growing for hyper-local distribution (neighbourhood farms).
- Create higher environmental standards for agricultural production, moving towards regenerative agriculture (lessen tillage, spraying and increase watershed protections).
- Put the preservation and protection of farmland into real legislation and regulations, instead making it a piecemeal “policy” that is left up to local government to honour or ignore.
In 2017, Food For NB All held a series of community consultations that led to the creation of the “Everybody Eats” information guide, which is a good primer for familiarizing yourself with food issues in New Brunswick. We need to dramatically increase and enhance the conversations that we are having around local food at all levels. I hope you take the time to learn more and make this topic part of your conversations in 2022.
Amy Floyd works with the Raven Project on issues related to rural food sovereignty and has a background in permaculture.