Scaling Biopolitics: Enacting Food Sovereignty in Maine (USA)

Community Autonomy and Local Food: Seeking Food Sovereignty in Maine
01 January 2013

In 2011, a group of food and farmer activists in Maine set off a maelstrom of political activity in and around the food sovereignty movement when they drafted and placed on town meeting warrants a Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance. Intended to maintain the viability of small farms in a struggling rural economy, these ordinances exempt direct transactions of farm food from licensure and inspection.

Their goal is to maintain control of food at the local level by asserting the right to remain autonomous from the corporate industrial food system. Conceptually, they draw on a populist ethos and the town meeting tradition to invite broad democratic participation in pressing claims for food sovereignty. This paper traces the ordinance strategy and its effects through activist networks and into the halls of the state capitol, where the governing and the governed have wrestled over the last two years with fundamental and difficult issues facing food systems. Recognizing the play of multiple food sovereignties in different settings, we suggest that this work offers insight into possible trajectories of food sovereignty as a movement for radical change in the food system by reasserting the right to define a local food system and drawing a protective boundary around traditional foodways. The concept of food sovereignty - democratic control of the food system, and the right of all people to define their own agrifood systems (US Social Forum 2010) – implies a re-scaling of food production and trade regimes, away from industrial scale production for international trade to food systems organized at local and regional scales. Beyond such a re-scaling, however, food sovereignty discourse is ambiguous if not ambivalent about the geographic scales at which food sovereignty can and should be achieved. Main ordinance advocates engage with the scale problem directly by arguing for the need for scale appropriate regulations for small scale production for direct sale; in addition, they draw on Maine’s tradition of Home Rule to frame perhaps the first legible spatial expression of food sovereignty in the United States. This paper examines the ordinance strategy and its ripple effects as a politics of scale, in which different expressions of geographic scale shape both the form and the content of political debate. The stakes in this struggle are high, concerning intersections of life and livelihood, autonomy and its absence, and bases for knowing and for evaluating risk. We view these stakes as biopolitics, or struggle over the exercise of biopower. In the exertion of biopower, states (and other actors) manage population health through the use of vital statistics and other technologies. Foucault demonstrates that as new forms of knowledge and regimes of truth made population health knowable, biological experience shaping individual and collective life, like dietary practices, became linked to the exercise of state power. The paper traces how the food sovereigntists of Maine use politics of scale to face off against biopower as exercised through corporate influence over food and farm regulations.

Hilda E. Kurtz Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia (US). Professor Kurtz’s current research focuses on the biopolitical stakes in controversy over access to controversial foodstuffs such as raw milk and un-licensed and –inspected locally produced food. She has published primarily in geography journals such as Geoforum, Antipode, Urban Geography, Space and Polity, Gender, Place and Culture and the Geographical Review. She is currently working on a book about the local food and community self-governance ordinance strategy profiled in this paper.

Heather Retberg and Bonnie Preston (collaborators) Founding members of Local Food Rules, the organization formed to foster broadening support for the local food and community self-governance ordinances.

Food Sovereignty: a critical dialogue, 14 - 15 September, New Haven.