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04.15.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Bill Longshaw
The dirt on food legislation: Several bills making their way through Congress right now would penalize small farms for the sins of big ones.

Fun with Factory Farm Bills

Sorting out the tripe and the hype

By Ari LeVaux


My inbox has been pummeled recently by a slew of emails warning me of the evils of a bill currently working its way through Congress. Sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), H.R. 875--a.k.a. the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009--is one of a raft of bills introduced in the wake of the peanut butter-borne salmonella outbreak.

All of these proposed bills, which ostensibly seek to improve food safety, threaten to jeopardize local food systems with overregulation. Unfortunately, it's been difficult to get a grip on the bills' true dangers because of all the alarmist hype that's accompanied them--especially H.R. 875.

"If [H.R. 875] passes, say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer's market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!" one email announced.

Nearly all the emails claim, "DeLauro's husband Stanley Greenburg works for Monsanto!"

It turns out Stanley Greenberg is indeed the CEO of a polling firm that did, indeed, contract with Monsanto. But it's no more true to say he works for Monsanto than to say he works for Nelson Mandela--another former client.

"There is a perfectly legitimate conversation to be had about how we can have food safety regulation without jeopardizing small farms and local food systems," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a national nonprofit. "But it's hard to have a rational conversation via these forwarded emails."

Lovera says H.R. 875 wouldn't regulate seed-saving, backyard gardens or farmers markets. It would, however, split the Food and Drug Administration into separate agencies, one for food and one for drugs. Food and Water Watch supports that. Unfortunately, Lovera says, the proposed bill probably won't make it to law.

  More likely to reach a vote, Lovera says, is H.R. 759, called the Food And Drug Administration Globalization Act. While this proposed bill has drawn less attention than the others, she thinks it's more likely to cause big problems for small farmers.

H.R. 759 would make recordkeeping requirements that currently apply to food processors extend to farms. It would also mandate that all farms become certified in so-called "Good Agricultural Practices." Following these practices, which are mostly aimed at controlling microbial contamination, turns out to be easier for farms that grow just a few things than it is for diverse, integrated farms--especially if the farm contains livestock. These and other aspects of H.R. 759 boil down, once again, to rules that would place disproportionate burden on small, family farms in their attempt to regulate the large factory farms where most food safety problems originate.

H.R. 875 and H.R. 759 are but two of several proposed bills that are supposedly aimed at preventing E. coli in spinach, downer cattle in school lunches and other horror stories we've. But by extending these regulations to the small farms that typically are not the sources of these problems, the playing field will further tilt in favor of corporate agriculture.

"What people don't realize is that if any of these bills pass, we lose. All we will have left is industrial food." So says Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which promotes unregulated farmer-to-consumer trade and the commercial availability of locally grown and home-produced food products.

A food safety bill palatable to locavores will have to protect local food systems with specific language that guarantees small family farms, backyard gardens, personal livestock, farmers markets and all forms of food self-sufficiency and farmer-direct purchasing are exempted. These regulations need to target the factory farms where the problems lie, and not the small farms that could and should be the solution. I'm hardly alone in believing the right to buy milk from your neighbor or grow your own food is as inalienable as the right to bear arms. And if lawmakers try to take this right away, they're going to see a backlash to make the NRA seem like a bunch of flower-wagging Hare Krishnas.


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