Time for the Whole Enchilada

Subtitle: Bigger Food System Change on the Horizon

The recent failure of the Farm Bill to pass the U.S. House of Representatives has been widely touted as another indication of how nothing useful can get done by Congress these days, and that interpretation has plenty of merit.  But this unexpected collapse in the process may also signal just how far away from the needs of ordinary farmers the “Farm” Bill had drifted.  Much has been said about the divisiveness of SNAP (i.e. food stamp) benefits in the bill, but the real potential losses to rank-and-file food producers came in the guise of one successful amendment to please the dairy industry (contrary to most dairy farmers), and another failed one that would have put limits on crop insurance subsidies for larger farms. Combined, these factors left the legislation without much of a cheering section, which proved fatal in the end.

In any case, the Farm Bill as we know it is critically flawed.  Some simple math will make the point.  It starts with the basic fact that about 80% of this government largesse goes for food stamps (no matter how worthwhile), and only 20% to agriculture of any kind. Then take into account that the share afforded to agriculture is similarly weighted, in a disproportionate way, toward what I will call the “industrial end of the spectrum” and away from family-scale farming. But even the latter portion is slanted toward supporting the troubled status quo, or conventional methods of farming.  What we are left with is perhaps one or two percent of the entire Farm Bill being applied to what we can clearly recognize as programs focused on sustainability and local food systems.  There are many laudable attempts being made to redress this basic structure, as with programs to expand use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets, but the fact remains that the overarching structure of Farm Bill funding acts like a prison within which the promise of more progressive food and farm policy is constrained. Continue reading

Safety Rules Cloud Beginning Farmers’ Futures

Blogger’s Note: I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks, being tied up with new initiatives at PASA and family events at home.  But I wanted to share this guest posting, written by my good friend and colleague Roland McReynolds, who is executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  Roland has been active with we me and several others on food safety issues ever since the Food Safety Modernization Act began to take shape in Congress during the summer of 2009. He is a strong advocate for farmers and small, food-related businesses, as this piece, written for the CFSA newsletter, will demonstrate.  For more information about FSMA, please consult other posts in this blog and  the NSAC tab above.  ~Brian S. 

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At its core, the movement for local, organic food and farming is about aspiring to make lives better: Prosperous for farmers and farmworkers, healthy for all humankind, happy for the animals we depend on, and sustainable for the earth’s ecosystem.  And the influx of beginning farmers pursuing agriculture as a career over the last several years has been one of the signal achievements of our movement.  After forty years of slow and steady work to re-envision how we produce and consume food, young people, veterans and second-career-seekers are able to see the potential for making a rewarding, meaningful living in farming.

After a century that has industrialized the landscape and our diets, this hopeful trend of new farmers is a manifestation of the transformative power of local, organic agriculture, bringing people back to land with a mission to care for it and preserve it for future generations.  And it is a trend that would be choked off by pending federal food safety rules, suffocating our chances for a better, healthier world along with it. Continue reading

Twilight of the Great Regression

Subtitle: Where the Farm Bill and FSMA Deem Not to Go

When I was a child, nothing captured my imagination more than our country’s space program, and specifically the race to land astronauts on the moon.  I read every single article I could find on the subject, and did several school reports and science fair projects on the Apollo mission.  I was obsessed, and still remember that hot, late July night in 1969 when we all stayed up late to watch the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the moon for the first time.

It was a heady time.  Really big challenges didn’t seem so big back then; they were thought to be achievable.  In addition to the space program, advancements were also made – though not without significant effort and some setbacks – on racial equality, women’s rights, clean water and air, preservation of endangered species, and even in terms of improving relations with a country as fearful and closed to Western influence as China.

Perhaps of utmost importance, all of the progress of the sixties and seventies came against a backdrop of extreme tension in the country, and some very major failings.  This list is just as easy to construct, to include the Vietnam War, assassinations of some of our most beloved leaders, routine violence in the streets, a rash of airline hijackings (to Cuba, remember?), the Watergate scandal and even, in that same fateful summer as the moon landing, the collapse of the 1969 Cubs (What can I say?  I grew up just outside Chicago!). Continue reading

Agriculture at the Crossroads

With food safety work on a bit of a hiatus right now – the 120-day extension for public comment on FSMA rules confirmed – I have a chance to think and write about the situation we are facing within agriculture more broadly.  A recent trip to Washington DC also pushed me in this particularly pensive direction.

While in Washington, I attended a special Rural Summit sponsored in the U.S. Senate, and now have a much better understanding of why almost nothing can get done in Congress these days.  With agricultural leaders assembled from across the country, it quickly became clear that no one was really going to engage in meaningful discussion at all.  The event was pretty much staged for certain Senators to give the speeches they had prepared in advance, but I was surprised to note that many of the questions from the audience were predetermined speeches as well.  With everyone talking at each other so urgently, it was difficult to see who might be listening well enough to make a real difference in national agricultural policy.

Much of the energy in Congress right now, at least with respect to agriculture, is all about getting the 2012 Farm Bill completed no more than a year late.  The lines are drawn pretty much as they were last year, and no one is even sure the House leadership will allow the bill to be raised on the floor for debate and a vote. Despite all the energy and theatrics, however, there’s a palpable sense, at least to outsiders like me, that the Farm Bill as we know it is either on its last victory lap or perhaps already defunct. Continue reading

New Food Safety Regulations Miss the Point

Subtitle: Antibiotics and Pesticides and GMOs, Oh My!or, It’s the System, Stupid!

In working on issues related to food safety over the past four years, I have often been struck by how the language of regulators and consumer advocates sounds frighteningly similar to that used by defense and homeland security officials to talk about the threat of terrorism. At first just a source of amusement, I later could not shake the impression that the two seemingly unrelated predicaments were heralded by prophets of doom singing from the same hymnal.  Whether the “enemy” happened to be a terrorist or an unwelcome pathogen in our food, it seemed the only solution would be to “smoke ‘em out” and do them in wherever they lurked.

The link between the two sets of issues is in fact indelible, starting with passage of the so-called Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA) before the dust of the fallen World Trade Center in New York had fully settled.  Among other things, the BTA for the first time required federal registration of all “facilities” that handle, process or distribute food.  That category was supposed to exclude all farms, except that when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got to looking, they realized that in fact many farms these days are doing things that look like what they thought only food facilities would do.  For historical perspective, farms have always been rather complex places of business, except perhaps in the minds of federal regulators.

What many people don’t realize today is that the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January of 2011, was intended primarily as an elaboration and ultimate completion of the BTA.  So for all the noise about foodborne illness outbreaks since 2002, the new FSMA actually has its roots in the desire to thwart terroristic intentions, or at least the theoretical threat that some external evil force would attempt to destroy our nation by poisoning the food supply. Continue reading

The Small-Minded, Small Farm Conundrum

Small is beautiful, said E.F. Schumacher to the world in 1973, but that declaration in itself was no small idea. Many people understood the implications of his work then, as they do now . . . except, it would seem, for those who have the power to make the big changes for which Schumacher advocated. One wonders if his ideas and efforts suffered from a basic, long-term marketing and communications problem.

I wonder that about our situation today in the sustainable agriculture community as well.  Our ideas are not small in any way, but we end up time and time again arguing our case primarily on the basis of size.  It almost seems we have replaced the “get big or get out” mantra of industrial agriculture with “get small or get lost,” resulting in an ineffective, elitist brand of policy formulation that leaves us far from the broad-based respectability and progressive goals we would like to achieve. Continue reading

Organic, Sustainable, Local Must Work Together

This column is a follow-up to my last one (September/October), which you can check out on our website if you wish.  The basic message of the previous column was that the social movement in which we are all participating – sometimes called the Good Food Movement – benefits greatly from its diversity, but faces great adversity if we cannot overcome internal fragmentation.  In this column I wish to take that theme a step farther in being more specific.

There are many different attributes that can be and have been assigned to food to make it more interesting to consumers and, at the same time, more profitable for farmers to produce. We seem to be coming up with new ones all the time, some of which are based on credible criteria and others less so.  But the “big three,” if you will, are organic, sustainable and local, which have been developed over the years in approximately that same chronological order, at least in the perceptions of consumers. Continue reading