Issue 54: Food Sovereignty

By: Richard King

What is Food Sovereignty in Maine REALLY All About?

Prior to the corporate and industrial takeover of the food industry, all food was local. People generally produced their own food and bartered with neighbors for foods they did not produce. The Industrial Revolution and growth of cities reduced the number of farms and made people dependent on unseen, unknown sources of food. Greed and a lack of regulation brought hazardous, unhealthy food to the masses in the 19th century. Exposure of the industry’s transgressions brought about the era of government intervention and regulation.

We laugh when we hear that children think vegetables grow in cans or that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, but it is a sad sign of how far we have been removed from our food sources. The vast acreage of monoculture crops and the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that produce most of our country’s food are unseen by the buying public. These corporate agribusinesses produce some of the world’s most adulterated, refined, and unhealthy foods, which through the magic of advertising are made to appear wholesome. We have been misled, nay, lied to, by the food industry regarding things like sugar, fat, and hydrogenated oils. The transformation of food from sustenance to commodity has produced a malnourished, unhealthy population.

While the intent of the myriad of rules and regulations controlling the production and distribution of food is to assure the consumer that it is safe and fit to eat, the rules have been written for, and often by, the corporate food industry. Undeniable is the fact that much of the manipulation of food products occurs to benefit the producer. Think artificial colors and flavors, pesticides, preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, growth hormones, antibiotics, emulsifiers, and GMOs.

There is a push back against “big” food, and food sovereignty is part of the vanguard as people look for nutrient-dense food produced and delivered under more sustainable circumstances. It is not a panacea for food problems that plague our country, but it does give people more choice. It is not an attempt to circumvent food safety rules and regulations that are so important in the world of retail food sales where consumers purchase food from anonymous sources, often at self-checkout stations without even interacting with a clerk. There is an inherent trust required for such food purchases.

The departments involved with overseeing Maine’s food supply have consistently argued that the issue with food sovereignty is food safety, but in fact the face-to-face transactions that are the essence of food sovereignty are among the safest. The short food chain ensures maximum accountability and traceability in the event of a problem. The fact that it has always been legal to serve home-produced food (including home-slaughtered meat and poultry) to “family, employees, and non-paying guests” is a good indication that regulatory agencies recognize that such food requires no oversight.

Somehow, however, when money changes hands, that same food becomes dangerous. Those “non-paying guests” (a.k.a. friends and neighbors) most likely do not think about food safety when they sit down to eat because they know and trust the source of the food. Food sovereignty has its foundation firmly anchored in that same trust.

Food sovereignty is about responsibility as well as trust—for both producers and patrons. Operating under an ordinance does not relieve anyone of personal liability. Food producers have to realize that they may be “betting the farm” if they do not concern themselves with basic food handling procedures. Patrons bear the responsibility of “vetting the farm” from which they purchase food. This is why transactions are required to be face to face.

A recent Bangor Daily News story by Julia Bayly ended with this quote from DACF Commissioner Whitcomb: “We at the agriculture department continue to believe in farmers and what they produce, but we also believe [food sovereignty] is the wrong direction pushed by some really selfish people.” It seems that Commissioner thinks that food sovereignty is trying to supplant the retail food industry and that is certainly a misconception, but if wanting good food and supporting my neighbors makes me really selfish, then so be it.

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