Apparently in response to the growing number of contamination scares in the national food system, a new bill was introduced recently in the House of Representative aimed at fixing our deeply flawed system. Unfortunately, though the bill has lofty goals and means well, in practice it would be a disaster for small farms, local and direct-market food systems, and basically any other form of non-corporate, small-mid scale agriculture.
H.R. 875 basically creates a new government agency tasked with food safety. It requires all food establishments and food production facilities (“any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation”) to register with the government and be subjected to random inspections by an agent with the right to seize or condemn any food product deemed “adulterated” with little right of practical appeal. It requires every person or business in any way involved with food to institute a full tracking system that would allow the government to trace every bit of food from beginning to end, and to maintain complete records that can be demanded at any time by an agent. It basically places every kind of farm, restaurant, market, store, processor, and so on under direct Federal control at the whim of whatever national regulations are passed, regardless of local conditions, diversity, or relevance to different types of food production and sales. It’s a nice theory, but as soon as you start to think it through, it becomes a nightmare for anyone not a large corporation.
Quite a lot has already been written about this, and I don’t really need to reinvent the wheel here. The best summary I’ve seen so far is from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s website. The raw text of the bill itself can be read here; focus on sections 206, 210, and 400s for the most farm-related portions. I’ve been fuming over this all week, and have started all sorts of different posts about this, all of which become run-on rants about the utter asininity and un-American nature of something that places so many ridiculous restrictions and infringements on as basic an American right as growing and selling food. So I’ve tried to boil my objections down to some shorter points, presented in no particular order:
1) The bill is completely impractical. Even if you agree with its intentions, food and farming is far more complex than the large corporate growers and processors it’s clearly aimed at. There’s just no way you could enforce something like this across the entire country, on every small farm and ranch trying to make a living. How many Federal agents would you have to hire to conduct inspections and visits on every farm, restaurant, market, processor, and shipper in the country? How many staffers would you need to read the yearly applications and records from all these places? And if you couldn’t enforce it effectively across the board, why is it being done in this format? Government should not take on projects it can’t do effectively, and this reeks of a huge unfunded mandate that will be applied unevenly, ineffectively, and unfairly.
2) The bill will disproportionately affect small farms and local foods. Can you imagine a market farm growing 200 varieties of produce on 5 acres, using sustainable intensive methods, attempting to comply with that sort of record-keeping? Maybe big ag can hire some flunkies to keep records on their 100-1,000-acre fields of one tomato variety, but the rest of us don’t have that kind of time or resources. Ironically, certified organic farms do have to comply with a somewhat similar structure, but (a) it’s voluntary and there’s a financial benefit as a tradeoff, and (b) far more farms DON’T certify primarily because the record-keeping and requirements don’t work for them. The most recent Ag census conducted by USDA showed that, if I recall correctly, a large percentage of farms that drop organic certification (not methods) do so because the record-keeping and regulations are impractical for them. This bill would mandate worse regulations with no compensating benefit other than continued legal existence and no jail time.
3) It’s going to have a lot of unintended consequences. Whenever you attempt to over-legislate a complex system, it’s like stepping on a toothpaste tube. Everything squirts out where you don’t want it, and nothing is solved. In this case, what you’ll end up with is a Prohibition-style farm economy, with a massive black market of small farms dodging the law just so they can sell to local customers, and a few getting busted here and there because they became too noticeable. And lots of farms going out of business because they don’t dare risk large fines or jail, but refuse to submit to this level of Federal interference in their affairs. It’s difficult enough to start and maintain a small farm under the current regulatory, tax, and health framework; this would end any hope.
4) I wonder if it’s even Constitutional. Intrastate commerce is, in my understanding, generally held to be the states’ responsibility. Can the Feds actually regulate and restrict farming and food sales at a local level to this extent? Selling produce to our local community is not exactly interstate commerce. Anyway, if it doesn’t violate the letter of our founding document, it sure as hell violates the spirit of it. The right to farm, the right to make a living off your land, is one of the oldest and most fundamental American rights and traditions. Can you imagine the uproar if Federal agents start raiding and condemning small farmers’ henhouses and vegetable patches because they’re not meeting the same requirements as Dole? The way this bill is written, that’s the inevitable result, or at least the sword they can hang over our heads.
5) It’s not going to solve the problem. There is no doubt that our national food system has serious issues, but you don’t solve them just through massive new regulations. You solve problems by looking for their ultimate source, not the immediate source. For example, if arson-set wildfires are becoming a problem, you may look into stronger laws regarding arson, but you don’t assume the entire populace are arsonists and require registration of every lighter, matchbox, and flint in the region. Moreover, you look at why the wildfires are even possible, and whether existing polices and systems are making the arson events worse than they need to be. To come back to food, all of these food scares are ultimately sourced in the fact that our food system is incredibly concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, and the paths through which food travels are incredibly centralized. It’s insane that one squalid peanut factory could contaminate most of the country. There’s a fundamental problem there which is not going to be solved by regulation alone. And by passing laws which do not know the difference between a market farm selling direct to local customers and a factory supplying most of the country, you’re going to stomp out a lot of the budding diversity in the food system which makes our food supply safer. Quick, when’s the last time anyone heard anything about a local farm or market causing any form of illness or trouble on any meaningful scale? Yet we’re going to get hit hardest by a deeply flawed approach that declares us all arsonists.
5) As a bill put forward in a strongly Democratic government, it’s going to sour a LOT of people who might otherwise sympathize with that party. And it’s going to cause a LOT of anger (and already has; just look through Google results for “HR 875″). Consider this: when Joanna first read through this bill, she started shaking. Her first two statements were something like her first two statements were something like “so this is how wars are started” and “if they want me to learn to use a gun, they can try enforcing this”. I’m not sure how much of that was a joke. We have put our savings and our future on the line in starting this farm; we’re responsible law-abiding citizens who pay all our taxes and spend far too much time attempting to understand the legal and tax requirements the government puts forth.
We do not expect to be treated this way by our own government, and if this goes through, we won’t be, because we won’t farm anymore. At least not for income. We’ll lock our gate, grow food for ourselves, give it away to our friends, and tell the government and the rest of the world to go to hell. If they want to make it illegal and impossible to grow and sell fresh, healthy food to our community, they can. Just see what happens next.