Those of us who have toiled much of our adult lives in the world of alternative and sustainable agriculture sometimes feel like we’ve been dressed up for years to attend a party that has never arrived. We get closer and closer, it seems, though the main event just doesn’t materialize. But even without the culminating experience we hope for and expect – a complete revolution in farming and food systems – we also know that its achievement is no less critical.
Problem is, there is no amount of empirical evidence or scientific analysis that can make a true revolution happen. Such input just piles up, as though behind some kind of socio-political dam until desperate situations can unleash the change that will flow down like rushing waters. The science itself can sometimes become part of that obstruction, preventing necessary change more than pushing it ahead as we’d like to believe.
I’ve said it before and it bears repeating – there has never been a time in human history when we’ve known so much about what must happen, yet remain so incapable of taking constructive steps toward a better future. We see the tragic loss of topsoil and biodiversity around the globe, the rise of super-pests of all kinds, driven by technology unfettered with ethics, and the increasingly failed economic systems that enrich the barons of Big Food while leaving farmers quite literally “in the dust.” We see the rise of chronic illness corresponding to the nutritional diminishment of our food, and rural communities choosing to install prisons and landfills as “hopeful” strategies to achieve economic development. We see the condition of the natural environment changing right before our eyes, as we continue to invent increasingly efficient methods for extracting fossil fuels and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. However, we can’t seem to muster the necessary determination to do anything broadly effective about any of this. Continue reading
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
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
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
This year marked the twelfth opportunity I have had to address our annual Farming for the Future conference, and I have to say it is still one of the most challenging and solemn responsibilities I have as executive director of PASA. Through the years I have tried to highlight some of the most important issues we face organizationally and as part of a larger, sustainable ag and food system movement that continues to spread across the country and beyond.
But I have to say that while the challenge and thrill that goes with this duty still feels much the same, there has been tremendous change over this past dozen years in terms of the audience. The audience at the conference, in addition to doubling, has evolved from consisting primarily of current sustainable farmers wishing to learn new things and be rejuvenated for the year ahead, to a gathering heavier on the “beginning farmer” contingent. The spread between the two has made it more difficult to plan programming that will please everyone, but this is a challenge we enjoy facing.
The external audience has changed even more. In this regard, I am thinking not only of average consumers, but also the remaining conventional farmers out there and, most particularly, those agricultural organizations and corporate interests that often look at things differently than we do. I was recently reminded on twitter of a famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that goes: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Continue reading