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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.”

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    Thanks Kyle. Good stuff.

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    "Food Sovereignty" doesn't sound like a good idea to me. Many food contaminants have health effects that can't easily be traced back to the source. That kind of incomplete information problem is just the kind of thing that markets cannot address well. Creating broad and idealistic exemptions to food rules is just a stupid idea that can't do anything but cause problems down the line.

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    I invite these folks to keep us informed and join our Facebook with other world activists at

    Free markets are just free people; the problem here is government coercion. If anything, 'markets' have led in the information 'problem' as IMO we see here--people rebelling against imposed and incorrect information by the authorities.

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    This sounds like the most frightening thing I've heard in a while. Food Sovereignty? Just call it what it is: Deregulation. No need for fancy government mucky-mucks to tell us what is the proper amount of feces in our vegetables! If people want food that is guarenteed to not have e. coli, then they can pay for it! That's the free market way!

    Like most Libertarian ideas, it sounds good until you try and imagine it working.

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    I can't wait to have the ability to buy food that may be contaminated, and no safety controls or inspections on it.

    Hopefully this will help usher in the free rodents and pest sovereignty movement as well.

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    Of course the idea of food being grown or raised more locally is a good idea, and that movement is already moving ahead. And would be, anyway, as before long energy prices will make it impractical to ship food great distances. Which will kill off a lot of globalization.

    I don't see the point of not having safety standards for food, though.

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    To Garth, Jason and Mitchell, I think that your fears with regard to Oregon SB 2336 are unfounded. The bill covers specific types of low Ph preserved foods, requires that the ingredients be listed on the label along with (if memory serves) the producer's name, address, etc., and only allows sale direct to the consumer (no sales through stores or to restaurants). You would be in no more danger of food poisoning or consuming an alergen than if you were to go to a dinner party at that producer's home.

    Purchasing a product such as pickles, you'll have better traceability than you would buying a jar of commercial pickles produced by one of the big national processors found at your local grocery store or a Walmart super center.

    Another thing that short chain tracability affords us is a much easier job for epedimiologists (for those particular products at least) in tracing out possible contaminants in purchased foods. The shorter the chain in production, the easier (and faster) the traceout will be. SB 2336 requires that the main ingredients in the processed products either be grown by the producer themselves, purchased by the producer from another producer in the same county, or purchased by the producer from another producer in an adjacent county. It also requires that the producer selling the processed product have gross sales of $20,000/year or less, which means that the person is probably not going to be bringing up large quantities of produce from long distances and multiple sources.

    Interestingly, the bill also includes provisions for exempting people like myself from rules regulating the direct sale to the end consumer of produce that we grow ourselves, as well as shell eggs. Under current law, farmers are already allowed to sell produce that we grow or harvest ourselves direct to the public without license or regulation. Same holds true for shell eggs as long as they're not graded or candled, in which case the grading and candling has to be done in a federally inspected facility and by federal employees that the farmer gets to pay out of his/her own pocket. Kind of makes me wonder what sort of legislation might be heading our way.

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    Considering the amount of food I bring home that is produced locally in the Willamette Valley, I take for granted the generous bounty we are blessed to have as Oregonians. The idea of needing to declare our towns or cities "sovereign" to the extent that we can purchase a homemade pie at a church or school fundraiser sounds absolutely bizarre to me- yet this is the reason that compels these ordinances from being passed on the other side of the country.

    The reason why I find this idea of "food sovereignty" interesting is through talking with two different farmers, both who sought pretty much the same end result- expanded opportunities to both sell and purchase locally produced food- but viewed it from different perspectives. In Oregon, ANythony Boutard describes a process that brings small farmers into the table and makes them a part of the "sausage-making" process. While in Maine, small farmers are responded to by the state with "We do not recognize your ordinance" letters. In my discussion with Deborah Evans, there seemed to be a bit of envy on the political championship enjoyed by Oregon's small farmers and food producers. (And lets not forget, Maine's Governor LaPage- the libertarian, Tea Party, "small, less intrusive government" candidate- is in charge of the state that is asserting bureaucratic rules over small faremrs and producers.)

    As for the safety concerns raised above, all of the recalls and salmonella reports have come from large industrial farms or CAFOs. There has yet to be an investigation of a breakout that has been traced back to a small family farm or producer. If there are local bad actors, the marketplace is unwilling to tolerate that. Evans described a local farm who had to travel a great distance to sell wares as their practices were deemed iffy by the local towns.

    I'm not saying I fully support the "food sovereignty" movement or anything, but the intent of my story was that this issue doesn't necessarily seem to be as cut-and-dried as some people think, as exhibited through the comments left in response.

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      Actually, there have been food bourne disease outbreaks traced back to small family farms. They're not as extensive or usually as well publisized as very large outbreaks (PCA peanut products, adulterated fresh produce, contaminated RTE products, etc.) but they have happened in the past and will happen in the future. The big difference here is that small producers selling processed products will provide a very, very short tracability path for epidemiologists to conduct an investigation in the event of an outbreak.

      One would hope that looking the end consumer in the eye as he/she purchases a product would also encourage extra caution on the production end as well. Labels on these products would also have a notice that the product was produced in an uninspected home kitchen and the end user can decide for themselves whether they want to buy a product like that or not.

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    Thanks Joanne for pointing out local outbreaks. The problems with local vs. national derive from different sources. National ones may derive from unhealthy industrial food production or processing practices that are protected by corporate influence restricting the regulatory process. Or simple greed like the peanut-tied outbreak last year.

    The legal value of these ordinances seems questionable, though maybe Maine's home-rule constitutional provision gives them more there. But the comparison to anti-corporate personhood ordinances suggests they may be weak -- there is no way that a locality is going to be able to enforce the latter type of ordinance, it is symbolic or at best an organizing tool.

    Do the libertarians support local food sovereignty if the locality wants to regulate more strictly than the state or the feds? Take the Orrin Hatch-corporate "food supplement" industry law signed by Bill Clinton that removes such "supplements" including both relatively legitimate ones and many quack patent medicines marketed with dodgy or simply false claims from FDA oversight -- does "food sovereignty" mean localities can regulate them more tightly? Or how about the local menu ingredient listing laws that many conservatives (and some others) hate so much? Do they come under food sovereignty?

    Does Maine regulate raw milk?

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    Actually I have to disagree with you Chris, as to the driving forces/causes of food bourne illness being different in the national vs. local production systems. The causes of food bourne illnesses in both systems are caused by greed, lack of regard for food safety (on the part of the producer, the workers or both), as well as using contaminated product. Further processors producing ground beef are particularly vulnerable to this, and even sample testing may not turn up contaminated components.

    And then too, sometimes wildlife can contaminate raw foods such as leafy greens, in which case contaminated produce could be distributed unbeknownst to the producer, processor or distributor.

    I couldn't say as to how the libertarians see food regulations and food soveriegnty, but I do know that various people see regulations, to varying degrees, to be either helpful or harmful. I think the federal government already said (in other areas) that a state couldn't regulate anything more strictly than the fed.

    On the issues regarding Maine and raw milk, you ask the wrong question. The right question is - "How does Maine regulate raw milk?" All states regulate raw milk (as well as pasturized milk). Some states have stricter regulations than others, some are downright draconian. For instance, there is one state (I forget which but it may be Vermont or virginia) in which it is illegal for you to make butter out of raw milk for your own personal consumption, even though you own the cow, it's on your property, you care for the cow and you milked the cow. However, if I understand the law right, had you pasturized the milk prior to churning, that butter would be fine and dandy for you to eat.

    Another state either has or was planning on passing a law that made it illegal for anyone to even hold a class on how to make dairy products from raw milk. Which is stupid as any product made with milk can be made from either raw or pasturized. The only exception is ultrapasturized milk. Ultrapasturization alters the milk proteins in such a way that it's not very good for cheese making, but I'm sure you could make ice cream, and other dairy products that don't require the milk proteins and casien to be coagulated.

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