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

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

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

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

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