For the first time since it began quizzing Americans nearly two decades ago, Pew Research Center has found that a majority of Americans feel the federal government threatens their personal  rights and freedom. That finding begins to explain why increasing numbers of people are paying attention to the Food Sovereignty movement, which launched in Maine a couple years back, and has spread to all corners of the land, with its promise to give towns and cities control over how food is distributed within their boundaries. In this guest post, Heather Retberg, a Maine farmer and one of the founders of the movement for food sovereignty, explains the historical and political underpinnings of the concept.

By Heather Retberg

Do we have the authority to define ourselves?

That is the question at hand, in local proposals around the country about implementing food sovereignty ordinances and in the national struggle over food rights. Such proposals have been labeled as “radical” by opponents.
 Radical?  The word radical comes from the Latin word radix meaning root.  To be radical means to be rooted.    If you look it up you will find that it means to favor fundamental, far-reaching, thorough social change.  A radical is an advocate for thorough or complete social reform.   In towns in Maine that have passed local ordinances at the municipal level, we are standing up under this mantle of “radical”, because it is necessary.   We must be radical and work at the foundational level to retain common sense in our local food systems.   

Reclaiming authority back down to the local level, away from bureaucrats and agencies, is indeed “radical”—advocacy at the most fundamental level.  We have found that the radical approach has a lot of official backing.

For example, here is what the Maine Constitution’s Bill of Rights says in Article 1, Section 2: “all power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit, [and that] they have therefore an unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government and to alter, reform, or totally change the same when their safety and happiness require it.” 

This article says with three different words—“inherent”, “unalienable” and “indefeasible”—that we have the right that cannot be taken away from us to alter, reform or totally change the government when our safety and happiness require it.  An agency of our representative government can’t take   from us, by re-defining who we are and what we do—our right to alter, reform or totally change government when our safety and happiness require it.

Our bill of rights calls on us to be radical when our safety and happiness require it. When we asserted our right to self-governance of our food system in our towns in Maine, we fundamentally, foundationally, going back to our roots, rejected the right of governmental agencies to define us or what we do in a way that undermines our safety and happiness.

The Pennsylvania Constitution has similar provisions in its Bill of Rights, under Article I, Section 2, called ‘Political Powers’: “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”
So, that’s pretty radical, right? 

All the states in our country have in their constitutions words like these in various forms that echo the words from the Declaration of Independence.

Studying the revolutionary period of history, and particularly Thomas Jefferson’s writings, shines a great deal of light on our struggles today. Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian society lost out during the constitutional convention and our country followed an economic and political model built on commerce and industry.  Much of the beautiful prose that we associate with our country based on liberty and justice for all comes not from our Constitution, but from the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration at the time of its writing was a completely illegal document, treasonous.

About 100 years later, after the civil war, our country had a series of weak presidents, and the huge monopolies were increasing in strength and power.  These were the original corporate giants: the Rockefellers, Carnegie, the Vanderbilts, J.P Morgan: steel, oil, banks and railroads.  They said things that echo the Monsantos of today: Andrew Carnegie said, “The millionaires…are the bees that make the most honey, and contribute the most to the hive even after they have gorged themselves.”    We have been down this road before.

This time period laid the ground work for the corporate regimes enjoying such great power today, including the small dictum attached to a Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations the constitutional rights of personhood.   Out of this time period grew our present day political and social superweeds that, in settled law as precedence, and in the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution,   give corporations rights to determine what happens in our communities. 

Laws don’t ban CAFOs, GMOs or fracking (not yet ) so the corporations are well within the rights they’ve secured over time using the constitution to come into our communities and build and plant what they will so as to not disrupt interstate commerce.  As constitutionally recognized ‘persons’, they have the right to invoke rights intended only for natural persons. 

When the founders wrote the Constitution, little of the wording from the Declaration was included.   A country “of the people, by the people and for the people” didn’t emerge until Abraham Lincoln spoke those words in the Gettysburg Address almost 100 years later.  While many of us imagine that these words determine how our governmental structure works, they…don’t.  These words do not appear in the Constitution or in any structural framework of government.  They only exist in the speech of Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg and strongly in our American psyche.

After the civil war, these agrarian ideals were brought out in powerfully stark relief to the corporate exploitation of workers in the Pullman factories, in the coal mines, at the spinning machines in the textile mills.  By 1896, the People’s Party, led by farmers, put forth William Jennings Bryan as a candidate against William McKinley.  Bryan famously said, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic.  But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” But,…he lost to William McKinley and that set into place the pendulum swing that has hopefully reached its highest point of corporate power these 100-plus years later. 

Now is the time that gravitational pull must bring that pendulum back down towards people over profit, natural persons over corporate persons and local communities over political parties. Corporations are the legal “children” of the state and the state derives its authority from the people.

If we the people are to maintain this authority, we are going to need to work in that direction and assert the “natural authority” Jefferson so nobly articulated in the Declaration of Independence.  We have begun with control over our food.