Sunday, December 8, 2013

The future of alternative food

   The last few months the kind of people that pay attention to changes in Washington, DC that are going to affect small farms have been issuing dire warnings about the rules the FDA is writing as part of implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  Unlike the organic advocacy groups, our objective isn't to get you to petition the FDA.  (Besides wasting time and losing focus, petitioning the FDA probably can't hurt, though.)  Now that the FSMA is already law, our best remaining hope is to partner more deeply and directly with a tight network of customers in ways that will hopefully enable us to work around the new threats and burdens to local and homegrown ways of producing food.
   As groups like the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association have highlighted, earlier regulatory burdens have already pushed most of the small-scale meat processors in North Carolina and across the U.S. out of business.  We lost our local meat processor, Johnson Meats, with whom we had dealt as far as regulatory restrictions had allowed, a couple years ago.  We're very pleased to have found another processor that will kill on the farm -- they're the last processor in North Carolina that still kills on the farm, and no new processors are being allowed to do the same -- but they're further away, they only process beef for roughly the first six months of the calendar year (much of which time is booked up a year in advance),  and we'd really be limited if they, too, went out of business.
   The FSMA is designed to bring that same kind of pressure on the one major remaining food sector that was until now mostly free to bring homegrown style food to farmers' markets and otherwise sell to the general public, namely fresh produce.  The battle for selling homegrown style produce freely to the general public isn't over yet -- it will take a little time -- but the writing is on the wall with the FSMA, and we can be sure that battle is lost.
   Of course, it's well worth noting that the foodborne illness episodes that prompted the passage of the FSMA -- here's a CNN overview: The decade's 10 biggest food-borne illness outbreaks -- were all from very large-scale producers such that individual farms sickened people all across the country and a half billion eggs, 30 million pounds of sliced deli meat, etc. were subsequently recalled... yet, the FSMA created a regulatory system that will disproportionately advantage the kinds of operations that caused these outbreaks while pushing the small-scale alternatives out of business.  One might blame corporate influence on the Washington system, but more fundamentally Washington control is simply a lot more compatible with large corporate operations than lots of small, diverse farms.  In any case, the FSMA is now law and customers now face an imminent threat of losing the one good, relatively easy connection they have with a locally controlled alternative agriculture, namely produce. 
   How can the local food movement hope to survive without being able to easily sell produce?  Like we said above, we think the answer is solidifying the gains the local food movement has made in the last 10+ years by deepening the relationships that already exist between small farms and their patrons.  Going forward it's going to be much harder for the small farms that offer substantive alternatives to the mainstream corporate food system to build connections with new customers, but there's hope in the connections we've already built, and that's a place from where we might slowly grow.  We lost a major battle when we gave Washington the power to define Good Agricultural Practice (which now goes with sinister capital letters and the acronym GAP), but we believe moving beyond the superficial freedom of supermarket style consumerism to real partnerships between consumers and local farms offers the best hope to continue to pursue alternative ideas to good agricultural practice, ideas that aren't just minor variations on 30 million pounds of recalled deli meats and all the other many ills of corporate-industrial agriculture beyond the foodborne illnesses.

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