It may be a little early to call food sovereignty an actual movement, but should it become one, Maine will have led the way. In 2011, the tiny town of Sedgwick, Maine, (population around 1,000) passed a food sovereignty ordinance —the first in the United States. Other Maine towns have followed suit; in May of this year, the Isle of Haut became the 10th town in the state to do so.
The goal of these statutes is essentially a shift of power: away from state and federal food regulations, toward local or community-level regulations. Part of the impetus is to help free small producers from regulations that would affect them disproportionately. Sedgwick’s rule, called “The Ordinance to Protect the Health and Integrity of the Local Food System,” declares the right of the town’s producers and processors to sell their foods without the oversight of state or federal regulation or licensing. Buyers and sellers can enter into their own agreements over raw milk, fresh eggs or locally slaughtered meats. The ordinance finds some of its justification in the U.S. Constitution, which says that the government derives its power from the consent of the governed.
The ordinance drafters concluded that the governed might also choose to take back that power, so that consumers could purchase local products without impediment.
In Maine, the food-sovereignty movement has risen to the state level as well. State lawmakers have introduced several bills whose goal was to exempt local food producers from state regulations. One proposed bill that would have made local food sovereignty the law of the entire state did not pass, but some others have.
Proponents of food sovereignty say that when operating at this level — local and personal — if a producer sells bad food, people will quickly know it and know where it came from, making it a sort of self-governing system. Opponents, some farmers among them, point out that knowing your local farmer doesn’t necessarily make his or her food safe. Local and safe are two separate issues.
Recently, the ordinances met the court system. Dan Brown, a Maine dairy farmer from the town of Blue Hill, had sold raw milk from his one cow. Rawmilk sales are legal in Maine but not without a license and label from the state. Brown hoped the town’s local food ordinance would exempt him from the state licensing and labeling regulation: Blue Hill’s ordinance says, in part, that local food produced by a farmer and sold to a consumer for consumption at home does not need to be licensed or inspected.
It was regarded as a test case for Maine’s local food-sovereignty ordinances, and they did not prevail. The court decided against Brown and wrote that nothing “in the Blue Hill ordinance clearly states that the town intended to include milk within the definition of local food.” He was fined $1,000.
Elsewhere, food sovereignty does not seem to have gained traction at the same rate it has in Maine. In 2012, food-sovereignty ordinances failed to pass in both Utah and New Hampshire, where it was called “inexpedient to legislate.”