Two very worthwhile online pieces caught my eye recently, and are worth taking the time to read this weekend.
The first is a recent summary of developments in the Senate’s food safety bill, which is moving forward rapidly. According to this online piece, advocates for small and direct-market farms have made some real headway in offering amendments to ease the pain of this over-ambitious set of regulations.
Of course, a close reading of the article demonstrates just how foolish some of the original legislation was. For example,
FDA will also be prohibited from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans or to identify, implement, certify, or audit those plans.
Well, that’s nice. Are you serious that the original plan WOULD have required us to hire consultants to comply with the new regulations, and it’s only through the action of lots of advocates/lobbyists that this was changed? Lovely. Also,
FDA will be instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods.
Also very nice. Except that it means very little, given that the people who ultimately determine HOW to “provide flexibility” and what all these other vague terms mean are usually political appointees. I have no faith that over the long run the FDA or USDA will be continually staffed by people familiar with and sympathetic to small farms. So why pass legislation that can just as easily be ignored or misinterpreted by the next generation of leaders? Once this is passed, we’re likely stuck with it; we need to stop passing laws that are only effective if the right kind of people are in charge.
Assigned reading #2 is a long piece from the Riverfront Times of St. Louis, offering a nicely evenhanded discussion of the growing faceoff between the Humane Society and agriculture, both nationally and in Missouri. The issue at stake is animal rights in agriculture, and who will influence legislation setting standards for animal treatment in all settings from CAFOS to dog breeders to small, independent farms. This was fascinating to me, as it nicely captured the difficult position small farmers like us end up in when polar opposites fight. We have little interest in supporting corporate agriculture, but when a well-meaning advocacy group pushes an agenda too far in the other direction, it has the potential for lots of unintended consequences. This is exactly our concern with overdoing food safety legislation, and it was interesting to see a similar trend playing out in this case.
The fundamental problem, as in many cases, is that the proposed solution doesn’t actually go to the root of the problem. If you wish to stop the practices of corporate agriculture, you need to understand why they exist in the first place. Cheap food is in demand, and government policies make it easy to achieve that through corporate means. Simply attempting to ban certain practices will be no more effective than banning drugs without dealing with the reasons people use drugs, or why they produce them.
Also of interest in this piece was the current situation of Troy Hadrick, the rancher who cooperated with Michael Pollan to track a single steer’s life in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Hadrick feels betrayed by the negative publicity his cooperation produced, and by the perceived animosity toward farmers in the general public. I see his point, though I read the book differently as criticizing only the end result at the feedlot, not the practices of independent ranchers themselves.
I don’t have time to go into more detail. Both pieces are well worth the time to read and think about. Reactions welcome.