Saturday, May 15, 2010

Food Safety Legislation

   Despite the fact that we make our living farming, we only realized a couple months ago that major food safety legislation that will dramatically restructure our farming/food system had already passed the US House (H.R. 2749) last summer and is on the verge of passing the Senate (S. 510).  As diversified, organic farmers we see some fundamental problems with the pending legislation,
(1) Diversity is seen as a threat: food safety is understood as keeping animals as far away from produce fields as possible. What that effectively means is large monocultures (where border issues are non-issues) and animals correspondingly confined to feedlots and confinement houses, whose manure then accumulates in tremendous quantities, far beyond the ability of the immediate ecosystem to safely absorb, and thus posing the most serious safety issues (as evidenced by the recent food safety scares, particularly the deadly food poisoning outbreak with spinach, as well as the most recent lettuce outbreak.) Diversified farms, after all, aren't causing the outbreaks we're hearing about and that have energized the push for new legislation; quite the opposite: large, monocultural farms are. Well managed plant and animal diversity is the friend of food safety (as well as the friend of a lot of other good things), not the enemy.
(2) Huge regulatory burdens are placed on the farm use of manure. But what's the alternative? Conventional fertilizers synthesized from fossil fuels and other non-renewable mined sources. Why should the risks of chemical contamination of produce (and of drinking water and other indirect paths) warrant so little attention? The science certainly isn't there to support, on the grounds of food safety, the hard push away from traditional uses of manure to chemical agriculture, and that's precisely the trade-off. What about synthetic pesticides? Are we supposed to ignore all the risks they bring with them, both to food consumers as well as to water resources, rural communities, and ecosystems? The reality is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides go together. The only practical way to place all these limitations on the use of manure is to open ourselves up to more chemical risks and proven chemical harm.
Even then, using petroleum-based fertilizers doesn't mean we have any less manure to deal with; it only means more manure winds up in places where it's a worthless waste liability, which is where the greatest food safety risks lie. The sensible question isn't how to avoid manure but how to best incorporate manure into our agricultural system. (We might also ask if ways of keeping and feeding and medicating animals make for less pathogenic manure.) No matter how hard we make it for farmers to use manure productively, the manure still has to go somewhere.
(3) “Good Agricultural Practice” cannot be defined in a one-size-fits-all format, and especially not by Washington. There is zero scientifically proven risk to letting weeder geese into a sweet corn crop (i.e. letting domestic geese eat the competing weeds out from under an immature sweet corn crop), and no reason to even suspect food safety problems, but official GAP would outlaw the practice. What if some people would rather have some goose poop fall three feet under their corn before the corn even forms than to have the corn itself genetically modified and then sprayed directly with chemical herbicides? (Transgenic sweet corn has already found its way into the fields of vendors even at our little farmers' market.) Obviously, the use of weeder geese isn't common practice (at least not nowadays), but there are 10,000 other such innovate farming practices GAP would outlaw. The end effect of a legislative definition of good farming is that a great deal of innovation and unconventional ways of farming will be outlawed, particularly on the kind of small farms that generate the least run-off and waste liabilities, don't rely on illegal immigrant laborers, depend least on foreign oil, provide the most viable, long-term alternative to cost cutting produce from China or Mexico, produce food with the least chemical residues, expose farmers and farmhands to the least chemical dangers, necessitate less highway and air traffic, demand fewer square miles of land be paved over, etc., etc. Have we not gone far enough in pushing these kinds of farms out of business already?


Harmony Acres said...

Wow, where do we go from here? Guess I'll go buy some weeder geese, sounds like a good idea to me, maybe a few more horses and a cow or two.

Jodi said...

Is Monsanto behind some of this legislation? What better way to force farmers to use their pesticides. Ugh.

Keep up the good work ya'll. Will you be at the Harmony Farmers Market?

Eric & Melissa Brown said...

I wouldn't say there's any special villain behind this legislation. It has support from lots and lots of factions. I'd say the main force behind the legislation is simply people that want to buy food, not knowing anything about who grew it or how it was grown (like in supermarkets), and yet have official assurances about its safety. The proposed legislation might actually work pretty well for the supermarket food system, but there are other ways of growing food that will take very serious collateral damage. It could just be that the laws that work well for supermarkets can't work well for traditional organic farms and vice versa. Unfortunately, we don't count for much.

About Harmony, the Friday timing just doesn't work for us at all. We wish it could, but it takes us all day Friday (and into the night) to get ready for the Saturday market in Statesville