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. Continue reading

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

FDA’s Culture of Fear Threatens Food Safety

You really have to hand it to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  They have accomplished a feat in the last 10 months that Secretary Tom Vilsack and his United States Department of Agriculture have not been able to do after five long years of trying . . . uniting America’s farmers of all stripes to stand up for each other and speak with one voice.

Beginning in January of this year, when the FDA issued its first proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which passed Congress in 2010, produce farmers in particular, both big and small, have been reacting with skepticism that the federal government really understands the nuts and bolts of food production well enough to tell them how to do it in a way that minimizes risk to consumers.

Maybe it’s because these farmers know the actual science involved – that diets rich in fruits and vegetables can save far more lives than the risk of pathogens would ever cost our society. I suspect, however, it’s a far more concrete image that has galvanized the farming community – that of two young farmers led into a Colorado courtroom in shackles, despite their lack of knowledge or intent to hurt anyone with the Listeria-laden cantaloupe they sold through Wal-Mart and other big retailers to consumers across the country. Continue reading

Moment of Truth for Farmers with Food Safety

It’s hard to believe, but many of my colleagues and I have now been working on food safety issues for well over four years, at least since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) began to move through Congress in early 2009.  Throughout that time the road has been twisting and bumpy, with victories and losses along the way, but now the moment of truth has arrived.  In just a few weeks, on November 15, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will close the comment period on proposed new rules that would greatly affect many of the farmers who are doing the right thing.  It’s anyone’s guess right now what will finally come out as a result.

When I talk about the “right thing” I really mean that many farmers at PASA and elsewhere have been working to develop balanced systems of production that prioritize health-building practices from the soil up, and short food supply chains that promote transparency by selling to local and regional markets as much as possible. Such strategies are the embodiment of both common sense and current science, since they maximize the health of the whole system while also minimizing risk through reduction of handling, storage, transportation and other factors associated with longer supply chains.  The urgent challenge now before us is that the FDA is preparing to implement food safety rules for tomorrow’s farms based on yesterday’s science. Continue reading

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

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