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

Consider the Bees of the Field

{Blogger’s note: This post was completed with the very welcome assistance of my colleague Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance located in Watsonville, California. Jo Ann can be reached at wildfarms@earthlink.net}

I was honored to be asked this year to address the annual conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society (EAS) held in early August in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  With well over 500 professional beekeepers and bee scientists present, it was also a tremendous opportunity for me to learn something about a topic with which I had very little previous experience. I was both amazed and a bit alarmed with what I learned.

While the occurrence of Colony Collapse Disorder has captured the concern of the general public, very few people know just how complex the situation with honeybees really is.  I’ll add that even fewer have any idea how the viability of the bee population might be affected by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Congress passed FSMA in 2010, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now issued proposed rules for its implementation, with a deadline of November 15, 2013 for public comment.

In brief, the situation for honeybees and other pollinators, already dire in some places, is likely to get worse as new regulations associated with FSMA take effect. It really comes down to loss of biodiversity in the diet of honeybees and potential destruction of the habitat necessary for their survival. To the extent that food safety regulations make these situations any worse, by promoting the separation – far away from food crops – of what also functions as wildlife habitat, so will the pollinators, and ultimately the crops themselves, suffer. 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

Sustainable Food Safety

A Sustainable Agriculture Perspective on Food Safety

Released: November 8, 2010 

What makes food safe?  Or, for that matter, nutritious, or enjoyable? Such questions acknowledge the many inherent risks that compromise the availability, diversity, quality, wholesomeness, cleanliness, and affordability of food, making it less safe, secure, or sustainable.

We enter this conversation as partners in the rapidly growing constituency of local and regional food systems across the United States. We are farmers and food-related business of many shapes and sizes, committed to providing the safest food possible without increasing the potential for adverse unintended consequences. We see ‘food safety’ in the context of many other risks to our shared food systems.

As citizens and as stakeholders, our commitment to food safety is informed by our concerns about:

  • The long-term loss of topsoil, species diversity, natural resources, opportunity for farms and rural communities, and choices for consumers
  • The public health consequences of industrial chemical and pharmaceutical use on and off farms
  • The long-term effects of implementing inadequately tested and controlled technology
  • The concentration of wealth, power, and control of production in the hands of fewer and fewer players in the food system
  • Private ownership and patenting of seeds and other production technologies
  • A widening gap in the connection between many citizens and the sources of their food
  • Instances in which farmers are disregarded or demonized, in particular by other farmers
  • The measurable but unpredictable impacts of the industrial model applied to agriculture Continue reading