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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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