Why your town has no inherent right to food sovereignty

I love it when politics goes into Bizarro world. We’ve got Democrats fighting against onerous, odious, and overly-restrictive government action. We’ve got Republicans calling for reasonable regulations to protect the public. More succinctly, we’ve got a debate about the “food sovereignty” movement.

Several years back, a number of Maine towns passed ordinances declaring their own sovereignty when it came to food sales in their limits. Their goal was to exempt local farmers from having to deal with state and federal regulations. In the words of one advocate, it was to require the state to recognize the “inherent right of local municipalities.”

Unfortunately, municipalities don’t have inherent rights. People have inherent rights. States have rights. Towns don’t.

Modern Italy might be an amalgam of numerous prior city-states, where Florence, Genoa, and Venice were independent from each other, brought together through bloodshed into a single nation. Yet there was never a Principality of Portland or a Serene Republic of Rumford, forced into this arrangement called “Maine.” As citizens, we chose to vest our authority in a singular state. And, establishing a national government alongside citizens of other states, we empowered Washington, D.C., with limited, enumerated powers, keeping general authority with Augusta.

The New England town meeting. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

The powers of towns are like those of the federal government; they are limited and subject to change. If we see it fit to do so, municipalities in Maine can be abolished. Portland’s City Charter could be repealed, turning it into Unorganized Territory Cumberland County. It would certainly be interesting to watch.   

This lack of inherent municipal authority is why these “food sovereignty” ordinances don’t work. Yes, we could pass a law granting permission for towns to adopt these resolutions. But is that the right approach?

There is a reason why Rep. Jeff Timberlake, a Republican through-and-through and eighth-generation Maine farmer, wants to keep the state engaged. Economies of scale are a real thing, and towns are unlikely to have the infrastructure necessary to adequately monitor food safety. It is the same reason why so many schools are organized regionally or municipalities opt for law enforcement coverage from the county sheriff, instead of setting up individual police departments.

So instead of trying to create “food sovereignty” zones on an ad hoc, town-by-town basis, let’s fix the regulations standing between consumers and farmers systematically. Augusta can create simple, clear, and minimal regulations and apply them evenhandedly statewide. Yet, as is so often the case, much of the challenge and frustration is found in Washington, D.C.

As “organic” food continues to grow in popularity, some small farmers are rebelling against the term. Not because they have abandoned the practices, but in protest of the USDA’s redefining of its meaning. Or look at processing livestock. If an Oxford County farmer wants to sell any product at a North Conway, New Hampshire, market, he must use a federally inspected slaughterhouse.

Bad things happening over a century ago are not a reason for federal engagement in perpetuity. State-inspected facilities are already required to meet the same standards as their federally blessed competitors. Empowering them with the same abilities should not be controversial. Unfortunately, due to silly Supreme Court precedent, Washington, D.C., claims the authority to regulate any agricultural activity in the country. That includes growing food for yourself and your family.

Reining in the federal government would be a good place for Maine Democrats and Republicans — and everyone else — to find common cause. Democrats can call it part of the “food sovereignty” push writ large, while the GOP can rally around the ever popular flag of federalism. An era of good feelings could be within reach.

Now if only we could do the same with marijuana. Or health care. Or any number of other things. Then we’d really be in Bizarro world.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.