Our Lives in the Balance

Well folks, we received word last week of yet another extension of the deadline to comment on the proposed rules related to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  The new deadline will be November 13 of this year.  We are told that this is a “final” deadline, and we have every reason to believe that description, since the courts are now involved in limiting FDA’s ability to extend the process any further. We can at least be happy that the month of August will not be spent trying to motivate farmers and the general public to respond in great numbers to the proposed rules – the fall season will work much better for that, and we’ll still be done by Thanksgiving!

But there is tremendous worry out there in the sustainable agriculture community that the rules as they stand are woefully inadequate to improve the safety of our food supply in any meaningful way, while also avoiding the near certainty that the implementation process will lead to further concentration in both the agricultural and processing sectors of the food industry.  I am no government hater, but it does seem that, when it comes to agriculture, the good intentions of using regulation to rein in the excesses of corporate power often end up helping to consolidate and strengthen that power instead.

There is an interesting backdrop to this drama occurring in the study of the microbiology of the human body. More is being done all the time to understand the importance of balancing the bacterial composition within each of us as a pathway to good health, and the ways in which that balance is reflected both in our human families and the environments in which we live.  In a very real sense, we may be sacrificing our own health each time we accept the degradation of the natural world, especially when it comes to needing a balance of good and bad bacteria throughout the system. For more information about this, please see Michael Pollan’s excellent article recently published in the New York Times Magazine, and this report on The Scientist website.  This is a rapidly developing area of science that threatens (or promises) to overturn much of the conventional wisdom about nutrition and disease prevention in the years ahead.

The point is, and as PASA members have been discussing for many years, the more we do to sanitize our environment of all pathogens, while also accepting the rampant use of complex agricultural chemicals to control so-called “pests,” the less able we are to fend off disease of all kinds in more natural ways, which then increases our own dependence on modern pharmaceuticals to keep from being sick. It’s a vicious cycle, and the new FSMA rules are likely to make that situation even worse.  I agree that no one should have to die because of something in the food they ate.  But I also feel we should not compromise the physical wellbeing of the masses while trying to completely eliminate the short-term risk of eating any food whatsoever.  Balance is indeed the key, and with the new rules, we will be running at a quickened pace in the opposite direction.

Our farms are now, and have always been, the greatest source we have of both health and hope for the future.  The success of any farm is also the result of a dynamic balance of current science and the more intuitive knowledge of the farmers themselves. If we try to completely replace that intuition with more and more stringent regulation – prescribing exactly how things should be done – we will have lost the magic, and the health, and hope for the future that our farms represent.  Surely we can find a better way to balance risks and rewards in the food system, while also healing the significant damage already done.

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