Food sovereignty ordinance could benefit the city

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Nov 17, 2016

When I first heard that City Council was considering a food sovereignty ordinance, I was skeptical. First, because Rockland has only one farm that I know of and not a lot of land for new ones, so I wondered why we needed an ordinance that is touted as a benefit to small farmers. Second, I dislike model ordinances, because they address issues and concerns that may or may not align with our local situation (which, of course, is only a problem if they are not amended to do so).

My opinion has changed after listening to the initial workshop on the question, held during council’s November agenda-setting meeting. I think that Rockland should pass a food sovereignty ordinance, because it makes a strong statement about local control and champions individual decision-making, but also because it has the potential to increase access to affordable, healthy food in the community.

Our local situation is different from the other 16 municipalities that have adopted similar measures in Maine. Those towns are farming towns, and a food sovereignty ordinance enables farmers to opt out of purchasing expensive equipment better suited for large-scale industrial farming (if they only sell to people within that town). This allows farmers who have only one or two cows to make a little extra money selling the raw milk their family does not consume; under state law this farmer might need to invest tens of thousands of dollars to sell that small amount of milk.

I don’t think anyone in Rockland has a cow. And I’m not sure there are too many farmable acres in the community. So what purpose would a food sovereignty ordinance have for our community? Jesse Watson, one of two people spearheading the movement locally, persuasively argued that this type of ordinance does not just protect the livelihood of farmers, but can shape a radically different local food system.

He envisions small-scale "farms" in people’s backyards, from which they can provide for their own needs and sell extra to their neighbors. This vision of urban agriculture is not only hyper-local, but makes the entire community more sustainable: transforming yards from grass mono-cultures, improving public health and increasing access to healthy, affordable foods.

This distributed model and its micro-transactions are difficult to regulate, but there’s an open question of whether or not small-scale agriculture poses a legitimate public health risk. The proponents of the food sovereignty ordinance argue that the industrial, highly centralized food system is more likely to spread disease and needs more monitoring than local systems. They also assert that the community will self-monitor (which will be of little comfort to the person who first becomes ill).

While individuals can choose the amount of risk they are personally comfortable taking, municipal government has to be more careful to consider the wider community and should carefully vet the unintended consequences and the actual risk. As long as the model remains producer-to-consumer, the risk is a calculated one that individuals have the freedom to make. But that assumes no one will buy eggs from their neighbor and bake a souffle for the next church potluck.

When you move from the individual-to-individual realm to the effect on the community, three essential questions (and opportunities) arise.

First, what is the value of extending this ordinance to the secondary market? Rockland’s vibrant restaurant scene is already enhanced by local seafood, foragers and local farms. Expanding the food sovereignty ordinance would obviously increase the risks, because the consumer would not be able to independently evaluate the safety of the food source. On the other hand, many restaurant owners and small grocers have close relationships with their suppliers and may be more likely to accurately assess those suppliers than many citizens. If small farms are truly safe, the risk is fairly low, but does government have a responsibility to its citizens to mitigate and regulate (or even over-regulate) every risk?

The second question is how this ordinance would interact with related ordinances, such as zoning and code. One person’s urban farm is possibly another’s tick breeding ground. How does the city balance such competing concerns?

The final question is whether the city should establish fees and permits. The core value of the food sovereignty ordinance rejects this very strongly, but that leads to a local oddity: you would need a permit to have chickens in Rockland, but not to sell their eggs locally. Why? Is one an inherent right more than the other? Does one disrupt the community more than the other? What is the purpose of a fee or permit in general?

While this ordinance seems like a very different issue from ones that City Council has recently considered, including the power plant, short-term rentals or whether to require sprinklers in new residential constructions, they all evaluate many essential values that we hold about government: the role of local control versus state or federal regulation; the extent to which an individual can pursue a living or make choices independent of the government; the impact of particular activities on neighbors and the extent to which those should be regulated; and how we as a community create a framework for sustainable systems to evolve. Together, these ordinances allow the community to consciously answer these questions and create a system that responds to the needs of its citizens.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Carole Black | Nov 19, 2016 07:27

I always enjoy, and am educated by, your articles, Chelsea, whether I agree or disagree with you.  You are such a reasonable voice in our community.

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