The Sticky Issue of Food Sovereignty : An Old Locavore Speaks Up

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.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. At least with regard to the federal laws, wouldn’t there be a supremacy clause issue, especially given that even locally produced food might affect interstate commerce?

    Comment by Hadar — May 25, 2011 #

  2. Thought-provoking post. I don’t know how true this is but I read somewhere that small-scale farmers are not allowed to slaughter the cattle they raise on their own property – they have to take it to an FDA-approved slaughterhouse, which usually happens to be where the corn-fed, antibiotic and disease riddled, industrially raised cows get slaughtered as well. That was pretty shocking to me.

    Comment by Crazy Radishes — May 26, 2011 #

  3. Hadar–good question, and it is one of my thoughts, as well, which is why I don’t believe any of these local laws will stand up in court if they contradict state or especially federal law.

    Radishes–you are correct. If the farmer wishes to sell his beef, lamb, goat or pork, in most states, it must be slaughtered and butchered in a USDA inspected facility. Some states allow farm-butchering of chickens and other poultry, others do not.

    IF the farmer is lucky enough to be near a small, local slaughterhouse facility–which we are lucky enough to have at least one such facility here in Athens county and several in SE Ohio that I know of–the slaughterhouse can be made NOT to mix “batches” of animals it slaughters. In a larger slaughterhouse, that is not always the case.

    I have been in the Athens county local slaughterhouse. It is CLEAN and is a facility that I would not mind working in. It has no smell, and they do not use inhumane methods to kill their animals that I saw.

    I’ve seen films of the big slaughterhouses–I can only imagine the smell.

    Comment by Barbara — May 26, 2011 #

  4. If the farmer is using the meat for his own purposes, he can butcher at his farm.

    Comment by Barbara — May 26, 2011 #

  5. One thing I would think about on the locavore front is interacting with the local farmers, artisans and ranchers in everyday life. If you are all in the same community, everyone would want to do the best to make the best product, right? I go to my farmers market every weekend and, if I didn’t get a good product, they would hear about it. I think that is how it is supposed to work, no? Good people just like my uncle who did the same thing.
    Here in Western Washington we have mobile slaughterhouses that go around to small farms, organic farms, for jewish and muslim religious needs. There are also a couple of a little larger meat markets that have slaughterhouses on site. It’s all grass fed, pasture raised organic product. So, I guess Washington is a state that has thumbed it nose at the FDA. Dairy, chickens, goat milk/cheese all are also local and wonderful and I love being here and experiencing this lovely food.

    Comment by Scotia48 — May 27, 2011 #

  6. Thanks for bringing some more attention to food sovereignty in the US, Barbara. I would like to clarify a few things about the Vermont effort. Our group, the VT Coalition for Food Sovereignty, took shape in November 2010 in response to the Federal Food Safety and Modernization Act. It wasn’t (and is not) that we don’t want safe food, but we also want fresh, local, healthy food and there is sometimes a world of difference. We included the references to corporate practices in our Resolution understanding full well the revolving door scenario between major corporate agribusiness and positions of influence within the federal government. The FSMA fundamentally changed the role and jurisdiction of the FDA, gave increased power to the Agency of Health and Human Services to use the state Ag departments as enforcement agents for federal rules and interpretations of federal and even state rules. If you’re interested there are a number of audio links on our website to interviews specific to the concerns many of us have about the impacts of this type of one-size-fits-all policy.

    Our response to the VT Agency of Agriculture over its interpretation of the VT raw milk law (Act 62) was Butter Appreciation Day, an event at which we defied the Agency and made butter from cream (some raw some not) in the State House. This is how we put the Resolution into action at the People-level. We identified an infringement to food sovereignty, resisted it and made our point. The good news is we succeeded and the law was fixed.

    When we wrote and signed our Resolution we agreed to resist infringements on our ability to save seed, grow, process, consume and exchange food and farm products. We’re not saying to the Feds, “Hey, get the hell out of our town.” What we are saying is we have these rights and we are absolutely committed to protecting them for future generations. When the govt’s desire for “safety” Makes it burdensome for farmers to produce and people to access fresh, local, healthy food then we have a situation that needs attention.

    Comment by Jessica — June 17, 2011 #

  7. It is important to remember that food sovereignty is much more complex than this. And messy. And not US American in its origins.

    Comment by Atrebla — March 8, 2012 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.