The amendment to the Maine Constitution approved by voters earlier this month with 61 percent of the vote establishes a “natural and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food of their own choosing.” This is a commendable addition to Maine citizens’ existing basic 24 rights enumerated in Article I of our constitution. The amendment grew out of the food security movement in Maine, and now it will be left to the courts to decide the practical meaning of the amendment.

The Salt Marsh Trail in Gouldsboro leads to several lookouts with views to West Bay. “Maine’s history makes clear that, without strong regulations and enforcement, corporations and individuals will pollute if they believe a profit is to be had,” Roger Bowen writes. Carey Kish photo

Mainers, and not simply the libertarians among us, should applaud this new right. We should, however, also ask ourselves whether a logically prior “natural and unalienable right” to a clean and safe environment should also be added to our constitution. After all, if our waters are polluted and our soils are contaminated by toxins, then growing crops and raising livestock become a fool’s errand that effectively undermines the amendment about right to food.

We can cite a precedent: The Human Rights Commission of the United Nations voted unanimously last month to recommend that the General Assembly adopt as a “basic human right” a “healthy and sustainable environment.” If approved, then environmental rights could be added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, first adopted in the late 1940s and spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt.

As it happens, we also have floating in Maine’s legislative ether another recommended amendment to our constitution: the Pine Tree Amendment (L.D. 489), which is being championed by Rep Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, and supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. It reads, “The State shall conserve, protect, and maintain the State’s natural resources, including but not limited to, its air, water, land, and ecosystems for the benefit of all people, including generations to come.” The proposed amendment was reported out of the Natural Resources Committee in a bipartisan 9-4 vote in favor.

Unlike the food amendment, the right to a clean and safe environment will be less appealing to the libertarians because it will require strong government support in its implementation through regulations, rules, bureaucracy and targeted enforcement. Maine’s history makes clear that, without strong regulations and enforcement, corporations and individuals will pollute if they believe a profit is to be had, if the risk of being caught is minimal and if anti-pollution regulations are not codified and widely disseminated as part of a forceful ad campaign.

The rubber meets the road, however, when the food amendment and the proposed environment amendment are in conflict. One example, close to home, is American Aquaculture’s plan to raise hundreds of thousands of salmon in football field-sized pens in Frenchman Bay. If the “fish factory” is built, the salmon will become major polluters and diesel fuel will be burned 24/7 in order to power vacuums that remove some (but far from all) effluent and the barges and trucks that daily transport the captured effluent, plus the captured fish, for processing in Prospect Harbor. Lobster fishers fear that the lines to their traps will be severed by barges; Acadia National Park fears visitors will see the fish factory as an eyesore, and local residents fear the noise and air pollution that will without question be caused by American Aquaculture.

Does the right to grow food extend equally to American Aquaculture as well as small-scale lobstering in the bay? Whose right to harvest food has precedence? And which operation is most environmentally friendly?

In such instances, a constitutional right to a clean and safe environment, if regarded as a logically prior right, should trump food rights, or at least distinguish between competing businesses in terms of which is least likely to harm the environment.

Food security is a human right, and Maine’s citizens have enshrined this right in our constitution. We should follow suit, and soon, to elevate the right to a healthy and sustainable environment to become the 26th Amendment to our state constitution.

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