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.

In Pennsylvania we found partnerships with our own Department of Agriculture, faculty and staff at Penn State University, and the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations – including representatives from the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, the Vegetable Growers Association, Farm Bureau and many other more conventionally minded farm organizations based in the commonwealth.  For the first time in recent history all of agriculture was speaking with one voice saying “Please don’t make it impossible for family farmers to stay on the land, producing the fresh fruits and vegetables that our citizens want to be healthy and value-adding small businesses our rural communities need in order to thrive.” And for the first time ever, it was the sustainable and organic farming community that was leading the charge on behalf of all farmers throughout the country.

Add to this massive coalition the voices of our members and countless others who spoke at public meetings, talked with legislators, and customers, resulting in the submission of more than 25,000 written comments to the FDA by the deadline on the Friday before Thanksgiving, and you will know why we weren’t so surprised when, just before Christmas, the FDA announced they would be taking another crack at the most controversial parts of the proposed rules, starting from scratch with all the information they had received. This welcome news was followed by a meeting I attended in January between the core leaders of our coalition and officials at FDA, including Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor, to support the process of writing new rules and implementing them in a way that will work both for farmers and consumers who wish to access the freshest of foods for their families. This has truly been a watershed moment for our movement, giving us an opportunity to stop and celebrate . . . even if for just a short while.

One of the more interesting perspectives I came across in the work on the FSMA rules came from the American Indian community.  It was published right at the end of the comment period in an article entitled “Taste of Sovereignty: The Need to Protect Tribal Food Systems” that was written by a young Indian attorney named A-Dae Vena Romero who lives in New Mexico (, 11/18/13) . This is the paragraph she wrote that struck me:

While food scientists and writers of proposed food regulations without tribal input may give little deference to cultural food practices or think of them as even irrelevant to food safety or at worse unsafe, Tribal nations and tribal food producers should not be intimidated by food safety regulations and food safety laws proposed through Federal agencies. Tribal nations and tribal people have always known food safety and in many ways created a food safety system that has transcended generations. Tribal nations and tribal food producers have to be patient and allow mainstream food scientists time to catch up, while diligently defending cultural food practices and institutions.

Just for fun, I shared this quote with Michael Taylor and members of his staff at FDA, and it was well received. A-Dae goes on to recommend the following three actions for tribes wishing to preserve their own food sovereignty in light of new regulations:

  1. Pass official Tribal resolutions and food codes articulating jurisdiction over food systems, food resources, and food businesses (agribusinesses)
  2. Begin community discussions about the direction and growth of Tribal food systems that include food producers, farmers, community members, and Tribal officials
  3. Conduct community food assessments to understand Tribal food community profile.

This is good advice for all of us with respect to our own communities, and this native perspective brings to mind the theme of our conference this year, Letting Nature Lead. For what are we really talking about here, but the kind of indigenous knowledge that, to some degree at least, is available to all of us, but particularly to farmers?

As I have said in other contexts, nature makes no mistakes . . . though it happens at times that we lack sufficient perspective to fully understand the actions that nature does take with respect to the welfare of people or our planet. Pursuing such perspective is a key to a happy and healthy life, lived in concert with the natural world, but it is also critical to any farmer wishing to succeed. Farmers know all too well the dangers of attempting to thwart nature’s intentions with inappropriate technology or excessive pride of any kind.

Which brings me to another big issue facing us at this time.  That is, how can neighboring farmers get along when one of them seeks to operate with nature in a lead role, and the other chooses to use some of the latest technology available that is meant to manipulate nature into providing a desired result? That is exactly the question the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has asked us all to comment on, and they recently extended the deadline for written comments until March 4, 2014 so that we could discuss it at farming conferences being held this winter.  To be more specific, the USDA is asking for comments on how to “foster communication and collaboration among those involved in diverse agricultural production systems in order to further agricultural coexistence.”

On the face of it, the idea of “coexistence” is difficult to argue with . . . something we all would likely endorse with respect to disputes of all kinds, from the local to international levels. But in this case it’s a bit more ominous an idea, since the two sides are not equal in terms of the threat one poses to the other.  The USDA would also like to keep the discussion pretty much focused on the issue of pollen drift between genetically engineered crops and those that are conventional or organic . . . offering that the best solution may be for organic farmers to purchase crop insurance that would compensate for, though not prevent such contamination.  There is no mention in the Federal Register notice, for instance, of the issue of pesticide drift, and with the approval of 2,4-D resistant varieties now seeming likely, it’s not the genetic material that will pose the biggest threat.  Fruit and vegetable farmers – and even backyard gardeners – will soon need to deal with the propensity for 2,4-D to drift as much as a mile or two from its point of use. This is important both because of the damage that can be done to non-resistant fruit and vegetable crops, but also because of the loss of organic integrity, which is as much a loss to consumers as to farmers.

Make no mistake about it, this idea of coexistence in agriculture is the “separate but equal” moment of our sustainable food and farming movement. That idea didn’t work well in the quest for racial equality in the Civil Rights Movement, and it will not work in this case either. What’s needed is nothing less than a full accounting of the risks associated with genetically engineered crops and the chemicals used to support them, to say nothing of the tragically failed promises that GMO crops would lead to reduced pesticide use and increased economic benefit for farmers. With this information on the record, we can then move forward confidently to assign proper liability, not to the neighboring farmer who, after all, is just following industry advice, but to the manufacturers of the seeds and chemicals used in genetically engineered production systems (for more details, please see

And speaking of taking action, we know the battles still ahead are going to be numerous and increasingly complex in terms of their importance to our community.  We also know that our strength is in the partnerships and coalitions that we develop and maintain.  It’s important that, as an organization we be active on a local, statewide, regional and national basis, as the challenges tend to look different from each of those different perspectives.  We have done good local work on food safety and food access, and our statewide and national interests have been effectively advanced as well through the coalitions in which we participate.

But we have lacked a strong regional partnership, which is one reason it’s so exciting that our board is moving ahead in its negotiations with the board of Future Harvest-CASA, our sister organization to the south.  Working together, as a single, but decentralized organization, we will not only be able to better serve PASA’s growing membership outside the state, but also address some of the really sticky problems that cross state lines, like especially, protection of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and the food safety and market access issues that affect Pennsylvania farmers heading downstream to Baltimore and Washington DC to sell their products.  I believe it will also give us a stronger position in terms of providing leadership on a regional basis concerning matters of national and even international importance, including especially foodshed analysis and climate change. You will be hearing more in the coming year about our joint Partnership for Agricultural Innovation and Leadership project, which will be deployed to enhance our educational programs throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I said in the beginning, the issues we really care about are becoming more urgent all the time. But what we all learned in the debate over food safety rules is that we needn’t surrender for feeling underfunded or disempowered by the system, because increasingly, the sustainable agriculture community now speaks for all farmers . . . and all consumers for that matter.  That’s a lot of people!  And together we can do what is necessary to turn the tide of exploitation by the corporate interests in our food system that would sooner let nature die than let her lead us to a better tomorrow.

One thought on “Following Nature’s Lead, Together

  1. Brian: Just a note to express my gratitude for your hard work and leadership, because of you and PASA my family and I have hope (real hope) for sustainable farming in our future.

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