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

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

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

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

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

The Winning Combination — conference speech

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

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