In the U.S., runaway inflation and out-of-sight food prices seem to be a new, uncomfortable norm. Add in the experience of supply chain gaps and empty Covid shelves, and you end up with high anxiety about America’s food supply. Today, our cover story begins in Maine, the first state to embed in its constitution the “right to food.”
Olde Haven Farm in the heart of Maine is a small family operation. Though Kelby and Pamela Young’s farm is commercial, Pamela says growing food and raising livestock is something everyone should have the right to do.
Pamela Young: I think we should encourage people to grow their own food and have lots of homesteaders, and I think we can thrive together and take care of each other in small farms and small homesteads rather than these big corporate farms.
She supports the recent "right to food" amendment to the state constitution. It declares that everyone has a right to produce and consume food of their own choosing for their own health. It passed with bipartisan support in Maine’s legislature and 61% of the vote.
Sharyl (on-camera): What’s behind Maine’s "right to food" declaration? Supporters say federal policies — and corporate ownership of farms, processers, and food in general — could make it harder for people to produce or buy what can be harvested locally.
Pamela Young : So I actually think people are a little bit scared of somebody coming in and telling them that they can't grow what they want to grow or raise what they want to raise for food to feed their own family. And so I almost see it more as a protection thing that's getting in place before anything else can come in and take that right away from them.
Maine was already on the forefront of what’s called the “food sovereignty” movement. In 2017, the state enacted another first-of-its-kind law. It allows local governments to approve small food producers selling directly to customers on the spot, something that was usually forbidden. Other states have followed suit.
Billy Bob Faulkingham is a lobsterman and Maine state representative who helped press the "right to food" declaration.
Billy Bob Faulkingham: Because when you're depending on food to come from a grocery store, and you go to a grocery store and the shelves are empty, where are you going to get your food from? It's going to take neighbors that have chickens and eggs and animals, and know how to grow food, having access to hunting, fishing, those sorts of things. Because when you can't depend on — the economy collapses and things like that — you don't know, nobody knows, what's going to happen. So you need to have a reliable supply of food locally if you're going to survive.
Concerns about the food supply are spanning the globe amid a devastating disruption of farming.
The popularity of the Green Party, whose platform is centered on environmental activism and social justice, has prompted climate change proposals like banning pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and limiting gases that livestock produce, suddenly forcing farmers to cut back or even close their farms.
The backlash has been ugly in the Netherlands, Holland, Germany, Italy, Canada, and France, where farmers dumped manure outside the office of a lawmaker to make their point.
But the worst economic disaster, perhaps, is found in the South Asia island nation of Sri Lanka. While already struggling with fuel shortages and rising inflation, the president banned chemical fertilizers. Food prices soared, and Sri Lanka quickly went from being rice-independent — producing all the rice its 22 million residents need — to having to import $450 million-worth. A citizen uprising over the summer forced the president and prime minister to resign and flee the country.
Rep. James Comer / (R) Kentucky (July 19 congressional hearing): Under President Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency is also trying to limit useful herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. These products, however, allow farmers to produce high yields and safeguard human health.
In the U.S., some fear the rest of the world’s troubles could be heading here.
Rep. James Comer / (R) Kentucky (July 19 congressional hearing): Again, what sense does that make? Especially when our economy is suffocating from inflation? President Biden tells American farmers they should be feeding the world, yet he removes the tools and the technology they need at every turn.
But as popular as Maine’s "right to food" constitutional amendment is, not everyone’s on board. Kelby Young worries about unintended consequences, like a stress on state funds and personnel used to help small farms like Olde Haven.
Kelby Young: Resources that us, as a farm that's producing commercially, need have become less available because they don't add more positions at a state level, because you don't increase your tax base. They don't have a “right-to-grow-food police,” but somehow we have to figure out how this works in our food system and our economy.
At this popular farmers market in Portland, Maine...
Doug Donohue: I think that most places should be licensed.
...organic dairy farmer Doug Donahue also raised concerns about giving everybody the right to produce and sell food.
Donohue: Well the problem is, if somebody were to make somebody sick, whether it's a licensed or unlicensed dairy, it shows badly on all dairy farms and could affect our business.
So far, Maine isn’t dialing back on the right to food. And if the past is any indicator, other states will follow suit, as consumers continue to fret about what they’ve seen and what’s to come.
Beth Coates / Farmers market shopper: I mean you saw that during Covid, that the supply chain was continuously being challenged. And so that made it very difficult to find things.
Colin Smith / Farmers market shopper: All I know is that my wife says that every time she goes to the grocery store, it's like 20% more, 30% more. You know, our monthly grocery bill's a lot higher than it used to be.
Even Kelby Young concedes there are serious issues. Grain to feed his 450 pigs has risen from $350 a ton to more than $500.
Sharyl: Should people be concerned?
Kelby Young: If inflation doesn't stop, then yeah, people should be concerned about the food supply in this country. For us to continue to operate, our prices have to continue to go up. And we don't know where it stops.
Sharyl (on-camera): The Russia-Ukraine war has further added to the food crunch, disrupting Ukraine as a top global supplier of oil, corn, and wheat.