The Regenerative Power of Restraint

If we were lacking an adequate appreciation for the concept of power and the ways it can be used in both constructive and destructive ways, the world has certainly given us an abundance of opportunities in the past several years to remedy that situation. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, leadership transitions in North Korea and the Catholic Church, and right up to the current Ukrainian crisis, we’ve had a chance to examine and contemplate the alternative expressions of power on an international stage numerous times.

In addition, there has been much attention to the exercise of power on a smaller scale between groups of people who think differently, act differently, or are just plain different.  And the power that sometimes comes between individuals in the form of bullying or other types of abuse is something we seem to care much more about these days, at least in theory. It’s laudable that our society is doing more to address bullying in schools, though equally notable that it goes unchecked sometimes in communities, civic organizations, politics or even the U.S. Congress.

We have also experienced big power moves within the realm of farming and food systems during this time – ongoing situations that are far from conclusive at this writing. New approvals of genetically modified seed varieties coming at a quickening pace, a Farm Bill process that took years and was more contentious than ever, the Food Safety Modernization Act (‘nuff said), and a stealthy move by USDA to substitute the vague idea of “coexistence” for a blessing of the status quo, have all complicated the lives of those of us dreaming of a more sustainable future for our people and the planet.

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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. Continue reading

Twilight of the Great Regression

Subtitle: Where the Farm Bill and FSMA Deem Not to Go

When I was a child, nothing captured my imagination more than our country’s space program, and specifically the race to land astronauts on the moon.  I read every single article I could find on the subject, and did several school reports and science fair projects on the Apollo mission.  I was obsessed, and still remember that hot, late July night in 1969 when we all stayed up late to watch the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the moon for the first time.

It was a heady time.  Really big challenges didn’t seem so big back then; they were thought to be achievable.  In addition to the space program, advancements were also made – though not without significant effort and some setbacks – on racial equality, women’s rights, clean water and air, preservation of endangered species, and even in terms of improving relations with a country as fearful and closed to Western influence as China.

Perhaps of utmost importance, all of the progress of the sixties and seventies came against a backdrop of extreme tension in the country, and some very major failings.  This list is just as easy to construct, to include the Vietnam War, assassinations of some of our most beloved leaders, routine violence in the streets, a rash of airline hijackings (to Cuba, remember?), the Watergate scandal and even, in that same fateful summer as the moon landing, the collapse of the 1969 Cubs (What can I say?  I grew up just outside Chicago!). Continue reading

New Food Safety Regulations Miss the Point

Subtitle: Antibiotics and Pesticides and GMOs, Oh My!or, It’s the System, Stupid!

In working on issues related to food safety over the past four years, I have often been struck by how the language of regulators and consumer advocates sounds frighteningly similar to that used by defense and homeland security officials to talk about the threat of terrorism. At first just a source of amusement, I later could not shake the impression that the two seemingly unrelated predicaments were heralded by prophets of doom singing from the same hymnal.  Whether the “enemy” happened to be a terrorist or an unwelcome pathogen in our food, it seemed the only solution would be to “smoke ‘em out” and do them in wherever they lurked.

The link between the two sets of issues is in fact indelible, starting with passage of the so-called Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA) before the dust of the fallen World Trade Center in New York had fully settled.  Among other things, the BTA for the first time required federal registration of all “facilities” that handle, process or distribute food.  That category was supposed to exclude all farms, except that when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got to looking, they realized that in fact many farms these days are doing things that look like what they thought only food facilities would do.  For historical perspective, farms have always been rather complex places of business, except perhaps in the minds of federal regulators.

What many people don’t realize today is that the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January of 2011, was intended primarily as an elaboration and ultimate completion of the BTA.  So for all the noise about foodborne illness outbreaks since 2002, the new FSMA actually has its roots in the desire to thwart terroristic intentions, or at least the theoretical threat that some external evil force would attempt to destroy our nation by poisoning the food supply. Continue reading