Let a Farm Be a Farm

{blogger’s note: Please make sure to read the action alert at the end of this post!}

With the dust still settling from the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a piece of legislation widely known as the Bioterrorism Act (BTA) in early 2002.  From one perspective this action was a necessary response to one of our greatest vulnerabilities as a nation, a potential attack on our people through the food supply chain. From another, it was an overreach of federal power intended and abetted by corporate America to extend their control over our food system. The actual reality of the situation probably falls between these two perspectives, and in many ways is still very much in play today.

No matter the effects of the BTA, one of the most significant things it did was to draw a distinction between two major categories of activity within any food system by defining a “farm” as a producer of raw agricultural commodities as distinct from a “facility” that transforms those commodities into the variety of processed foods that can readily be observed in any modern supermarket.  The distinction was critical, especially since the stated intent was to exempt all farms from the new regulations facilities would face, beginning with the requirement to register under the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), establishing the agency’s authority to regulate the activity of all such facilities.

Enter the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (FSMA), which was intended as an elaboration and extension of the BTA, now with added intent to authorize direct FDA regulation of farms producing raw agricultural commodities consumed by humans or animals with very little or no processing by a regulated facility along the way. The immediate effect of FSMA was to blur the lines between farms and facilities, such that even FDA personnel visiting farms – some of them for the very first time – were apt to see facilities wherever they looked. It was a dramatic representation of the old adage “Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail.”  Even those of us working to improve draft regulations written to implement FSMA were wondering if anything such as a farm, pure and simple, could ever exist, at least according the definition being used in the new regulations. Continue reading

Food Safety Back On the Agenda

If you thought we were done with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), you can think again. It has been most of a year since the process of responding to newly proposed food safety rules seemed to be smothering every waking moment of our lives, and late December since we heard the good news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had “heard” our concerns loud enough to force serious reconsideration of those first drafts of the Produce and Preventive Controls rules.

Fact is, the past eight months have been anything but quiet for those of us following the situation closely. There have been myriad other, lesser known proposed rules to respond to along the way, and several high level meetings behind the scenes aimed at helping FDA to “get it right” in a second go-round of rulemaking as well as the later implementation phase.  For most people, the process simply went below the water’s surface, but now it is poised to make a big splash back out in the open. As of this writing, we expect to see new proposals any day, perhaps within the next week or two.

As a reminder, this whole process really started in the spring of 2009 when FSMA first appeared in various forms of proposed federal legislation.  So some of us have been at it over 5 years now, making sure at every turn that the needs and interests of family farmers of all sizes, as well as the preferences of an increasingly engaged community of sustainably minded consumers, are taken into account both in the legislative and regulatory phases. Implementation will take several years of diligence too, but right now we may be facing the most crucial point of the whole process, as a second draft of rules takes us closer to a point of no return. Continue reading

The Regenerative Power of Restraint

If we were lacking an adequate appreciation for the concept of power and the ways it can be used in both constructive and destructive ways, the world has certainly given us an abundance of opportunities in the past several years to remedy that situation. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, leadership transitions in North Korea and the Catholic Church, and right up to the current Ukrainian crisis, we’ve had a chance to examine and contemplate the alternative expressions of power on an international stage numerous times.

In addition, there has been much attention to the exercise of power on a smaller scale between groups of people who think differently, act differently, or are just plain different.  And the power that sometimes comes between individuals in the form of bullying or other types of abuse is something we seem to care much more about these days, at least in theory. It’s laudable that our society is doing more to address bullying in schools, though equally notable that it goes unchecked sometimes in communities, civic organizations, politics or even the U.S. Congress.

We have also experienced big power moves within the realm of farming and food systems during this time – ongoing situations that are far from conclusive at this writing. New approvals of genetically modified seed varieties coming at a quickening pace, a Farm Bill process that took years and was more contentious than ever, the Food Safety Modernization Act (‘nuff said), and a stealthy move by USDA to substitute the vague idea of “coexistence” for a blessing of the status quo, have all complicated the lives of those of us dreaming of a more sustainable future for our people and the planet.

Continue reading

Following Nature’s Lead, Together

Every year I try to use my chance to speak at our annual conference to raise some of the most important issues facing us in the sustainable farming community. And with each succeeding year the urgency of these issues seems to increase.  This is partly because some of the negative situations we face are actually getting worse, and partly because the positive solutions our movement offers are increasingly met with resistance and denial by those who represent the status quo.

Let’s back up just a bit and review some of the challenges we have encountered over the past year.  First and foremost, 2013 will always in my mind be the year of proposed rules coming from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aimed at implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  What a long slog it was! At conference time last year we were still reviewing about 1,200 pages of material – with hundreds more to come – and were just starting to think about some of the implications involved should the proposed rules go into effect.

At the beginning, we were very much outnumbered and outspent in terms of being able to influence the final outcome, but what we had going for us was beyond the ability of any other group to purchase with mere dollars.  We had a devoted coalition of dozens of groups from across the country working feverishly together, with meetings every week throughout most of the year, and many of us in smaller groups attending FDA listening sessions held across the country.  We also found some new partnerships that we hadn’t really expected, including with faculty and students at the Law Schools of Harvard, Georgetown and Emory Universities, the leadership of the United Fresh Produce Association – a powerful group that had fought us hard in the legislative phase of FSMA, and even the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA).  At one point NASDA even shared a post I had written on my Write to Farm blog with the Departments of Agriculture in all fifty states. Continue reading

Letting Nature Lead

The past year has been an extraordinary one in the world of sustainable agriculture for many reasons, some of which may not be fully understood for many years to come.  That year (November ’12 thru November ’13) included much attention across the country to labeling of genetically engineered foods, including two high-profile public referendums that went down to defeat in California and the state of Washington. For many, this effort, occurring state-by-state, has become the holy grail of the effort to promote local, sustainable and organic food and farming systems for the future.

But for me and many of my closest colleagues across the country, the past year has been about something much less glamorous, i.e. the drive to understand, explain and then fix the problems in proposed regulations associated with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This was certainly a long slog by any measure, with dozens of folks working together to generate hundreds of pages of public commentary in response to thousands of pages of material we were given to digest last January. It was an extraordinary experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat, but the sort of work that had to be done at a critical moment in our sustainable food system movement. Continue reading

What’s In a Farm?

Back when the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) first started to move through Congress in 2009, none of us really anticipated that we’d be fighting over four years later to preserve the very idea of a “farm” as defined in the new law.  Well, almost none of us expected this, except perhaps my very dear friend Russell Libby, then executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  In an email directly to leaders at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with whom we were negotiating, Russell decried what he called the “broad and inclusive definition of ‘facility,’ and relatively narrow sense of what constitutes a ‘farm,’” contained in the language of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA), upon which FSMA would rely for such definitions.

Russell is now gone, a victim of the cancer that took his life a year ago this December.  There will always be a hole left in the lives of those who knew him, and also now this lingering feeling that he could see ahead, to the potential disappearance of farms as we know them, both literally and in the figurative sense as part of the laws of our country.  And as the newly-extended comment period closes this week (Friday, November 22) for comments to FDA on FSMA, there is almost certainly no higher priority to any of us than that the definition of a farm ends up in the regulations as richly diverse and comprehensive as we have always known it to be.  Please take one more look, and help us get this right. Continue reading

FSMA: There’s Something Happening Here

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

 –Stephen Stills, For What It’s Worth, 1966

 If you’re like me, you are starting to grow weary of all the hoopla generated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the effort to generate public comments to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the November 15 deadline. This has been a long slog, seeming perhaps like much ado about nothing to many who are not directly involved.  Along with Stephen Stills, you might be tempted to agree that what’s happening ain’t exactly clear, and no one could blame you for that.

The tendency in situations like this is to exaggerate what’s happening, in order to get people to pay attention to what is otherwise a rather mundane subject. There has been plenty of that type of hyperbole in the food safety debate, and this writer is not totally innocent in that regard. But when the public discussion about food safety regulation began in earnest in early 2009 – following problems discovered with our beloved peanut butter – there were various public messages promising that backyard gardening was about to be outlawed by Congress. Well, such blatant falsehoods did more damage than good, directing attention away from some extremely important implications for our food system in the ongoing saga of passing and implementing FSMA. Continue reading