Will the "Food Sovereignty" Movement Take Hold in Oregon?
You probably missed it, but the opening salvo of a nation-wide food revolution may have been fired on March 5th, 2011. Or maybe not. It all kinda sorta depends on how you view these things.
You see, on that Saturday morning, the town of Sedgwick, Maine became the first in the nation to pass a “food sovereign” ordinance. This ordinance- which sited its authority in the Declaration of Independence and Maine’s state Constitution- included language which states that “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing." Passed via the venerable New England tradition of the town meeting, this small hamlet of rural farmers in coastal Maine had little trouble passing the ordinance, taking a step that has since been followed by three other Maine towns.
Clearly, the “food sovereignty” movement is establishing a foothold and is spreading throughout the state of Maine. But what does this mean? Is this movement a New England phenomenon or should we expect to see similar ordinances passed by towns in Oregon? And just what the heck is the concept of “food sovereignty” any way?
“Food sovereignty is where libertarian, free market ideas combine with liberal ideology to develop a robust local food system free from other safety requirements,” explained Ron Paul, a former Portland City Hall mainstay who is currently the Director of the James Beard Public Market and developing a Masters of Food Policy and Culture program at Marylhurst University. “Free marketers find the idea of ‘food sovereignty’ appealing as they believe that most market regulations are overbearing. What needs to be recognized is that while these opposite ends of the political spectrum may share an agenda, the question that needs to be asked is ‘What’s common sense legislation regarding our food system, and how do we achieve it?’”
Anthony Boutard, former staff forester for 1000 Friends of Oregon who currently owns Ayers Creek Farm, shares Paul’s concerns about the political lens shaping the “food sovereignty” discussion. “What concerns me about the "food sovereignty" discussion that I have followed is that it is tainted with an "anti-government" rather than a "good government" tenor,” says Boutard. “I can see the rubric of food sovereignty used to undermine labor and environmental laws, as well as food safety. True, there is a certain appeal to opting out of regulations we don't approve of, but it is also a policy dead end. We are the United States, not the Sovereign States, of America.”
Boutard helped craft HB 2336, the Direct Farm Marketing Bill, which recently passed Oregon’s House by an overwhelming bipartisan vote. “HB 2336 took a very different path. Instead of a symbolic gesture of no legal significance, the bill creates a class of food sales that have a different regulatory structure. The regulators, market managers and farmers sat down and arrived at a reasonable regulatory approach. In Oregon, this is the first time small farms have had a place at the table and, if passed and signed, the bill will codify that place…. Rather than walling ourselves off in "sovereign" communities, we need to build alliances and work for better laws for all.”
In an attempt to understand whether Maine’s “food sovereignty” efforts was rooted in the libertarian, anti-government political framework that both Ron Paul and Anthony Boutard share concerns about, I spoke with Deborah Evans, a Maine farmer who has been instrumental in these ordinances being passed in Sedgwick, Penobscot, and Brooksville. Indeed, it appears that the anti-government element described by Boutard indeed played a part- but perhaps is justified. “In Maine, we had an exception for farmers who have less than 1000 birds, that they didn’t need to use the USDA processing facility,” explained Evans. “That changed almost two years ago when the state came and said that small chicken farmers could no longer slaughter on their farm but need to build an on-site facility. The federal government told the state that if they wanted to continue to have USDA inspections of Maine’s poultry, then these rules need to be followed. I have fifteen guinea fowl and two small geese, and if I wanted to butcher a handful for a friend, it would be against the law!”
“Farmers who were put out of business by these rules went to Augusta and testified in front of shocked state lawmakers,” Evans continued. “They would say how horrified they were and just how sad they were- but the state simply could not afford to abide by the federal rules. That’s when we realized that we needed to enact change at the community level, and spent over a year sitting around kitchen tables to draft the food sovereignty ordinance that was passed. In Maine, we have a “Home Rule” stipulation provided by the state’s constitution, which towns have used to pass anti-GMO ordinances and anti-corporate personhood ordinances, both of which have not been challenged. In Sedgwick, we showed that Home Rule could be used to pass a food sovereignty ordinance as well.”
Although a distinct anti-government perspective is apparent in Evans criticisms, a libertarian perspective is absent. Evans is clearly not a fan of S. 510- the Food Safety Modernization Act- which she described as being “passed in the middle of the night through legislative trickery”- and has an equal amount of disdain for the Tester Amendment, which provided a waiver of the federal legislation for small farmers and producers. In my discussion with Anthony Boutard, he referred to the Tester Amendment as “a good example of the value of building alliances.” Evans does not share that sentiment. “Some waiver,” said Evans dismissively. “The Tester Amendment is all about public relations, and not about reality. The exemption applies to only parts of the bill, and not all of it. You aren’t automatically granted an exemption based on size of your farm, you need to apply for it. You need to provide three years of financial information to be considered. And if you are denied, you have no recourse- no due process- to challenge your denial. The FDA’s decision is final, and the head of the FDA is a former Monsanto executive. Why should Monsanto have the final say on the plight of small farmers?”
Ultimately, Evans describes Maine’s food sovereignty movement as anti-corporate. “There’s a possibility that the homemade church pies and baked beans brought and shared to church outings and firemen’s picnics could be banned by the federal government’s rules. They say such items would be “grandfathered” but could we really take them seriously? Or is it an effort to ensure that such items would need to be purchased at Wal-Mart or wherever to be brought to such events? By fighting to preserve the right to purchase and consume the local food we’ve enjoyed for 200 years, we can begin to take back our other rights as well!”
What about the regional scope of the food sovereignty movement? Is it primarily New England in nature? A quick glance at a food sovereign atlas reveals similar efforts occurring in Vermont, North Carolina, Georgia, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, and California. This demonstrates a wide geographic scope, but one that does not include Oregon. Does that mean that it won’t, or is it possible that such small towns as Baker City or La Grande or Garabaldi would declare themselves food sovereign? “I’m not aware of parallel efforts in Oregon,” said Ron Paul. “I don’t think there would be, either. Such efforts are entirely symbolic, and the state wouldn’t allow local governments to declare themselves above the law.”
That may be, but the underlining key point of the whole food sovereignty movement could be summed up by this following quote from Deborah Evans: “The highest order of food safety is when you know the hand that feeds you.”