There’s a new bit of locavore lingo on the scene: “food sovereignty.”
What it refers to is the ability of individuals to safely sell and buy locally produced foods such as raw milk, or farm-slaughtered meats without having to fear prosecution for violating federal or state laws regulating such foods.
Two communities in New England have passed by voter referendum statues declaring the rights of consumers and producers to buy and sell local food products without having to adhere to any state or federal regulation regarding these items.
The first community, the town of Sedgewick, Maine, passed the “Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance” which effectively allows local consumers and farmers or other local food producers to enter into private agreements and transactions which effectively override federal and state health codes, bans, food safety laws and regulations governing food production. The ordinance also notes that the individual is required to do his or her own research into the safety of consuming raw products such as dairy, meat, vegetables and eggs.
In other words, caveat emptor–the buyer must shoulder the burden of understanding the possible health consequences of eating the food they are buying from their hopefully trustworthy farmer/neighbors.
The towns of Penobscott and Blue Hill, Maine later followed suit by passing similar legislation.
Barre Town, Vermont passed a similar measure by voter referendum (673 votes for and 200 against) which “reject federal decrees, statutes, regulations, or corporate practices that threaten our basic human right to save seed, grow, process, consume, and exchange food and farm products within the State of Vermont.”
The Vermont measure was in part a response to the threat from Monsanto to local seed-saving farmers whose crops had mingled with the corporation’s GMO seed, as well as a push back against a short-lived ban on the teaching of raw-milk cheesemaking. (Vermont’s Governor Shumlen signed The Dairy Class act into law, which allowed the raw cheesemaking classes to continue.)
The wording of both the Vermont and Maine laws are wide-reaching and on a shallow reading of them unable to withstand a legal challenge on a state or federal level.
However, if one looks more deeply at the Maine Constitution, there is a strong provision for “Home Rule” which allows local municipalities self-governance on community issues, which many say should include food sovereignty.
On the other hand, two bills which would support the local ordinances passed in Maine, one involving the sale of dairy products from small farmers directly to consumers, both were defeated in the House of Representatives recently.
This is a contentious issue, and one that I, myself, find difficult.
On the one hand, I understand that historically, our federal and state laws involving food safety regulation were originally put into place in good faith to protect the consumer from unscrupulous food producers who adulterated their products, (such as watering down milk or adding chalk to it) or engaged in unsafe slaughtering practices (such as were outlined in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. These laws were at one time, good and just, and truly had the well-being of the consumer in mind. And currently, those laws still nominally protect consumers from unsafe food production, though truthfully, looking at all the corporate food recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks across our country, one must note that they are doing a pretty poor job of protecting consumers.
However, those same laws have since morphed into protections for corporate and industrial food producers, by insisting that smaller family farms and food producers adhere to the same sanitation rules that govern the huge agribusinesses that dominate the landscape. In doing so, these laws are effectively pushing smaller producers out of business, because the regulations no longer recognize that smaller operations can be cleaner and more safe for workers and consumers by using different methods more applicable to small productions. Forcing small producers to use the same equipment as large producers creates an onerous financial burden for the small farmers, which essentially forces them out of business, allowing the larger corporations to sell their products with no local competition.
Which sounds rather like government-supported racketeering to me.
So, what do I think of all of this?
I think that the essential idea of local food sovereignty is a good one, but I also believe that communities must tread carefully in their pursuit of it. I think that it is perhaps too sweeping to throw out all food safety regulations, on the other hand, I believe that the fight against corporate control of our food supply is not only just, but necessary.
My very first reaction to the ordinances as they were presented on blogs was a knee-jerk, “Well, that’s a dumb idea,” but since carefully reading other sources of information, I have revised my position. It should be a fundamental human right to personally determine where and how we obtain our food, and there is no need for governments essentially force humans to stop farming on a small scale in preference to farming on a corporate scale.
For our federal government to do so goes against the very spirit of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and I, personally will fight against such actions every step of the way, until I have expelled the last breath from my body. I was born of a line of small farmers and butchers who made their livings producing food for their families and others, and I am proud of that heritage, and I stand with those whose livings are made the way my forefathers and foremothers were.
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