As a bleeding heart liberal, it pains me to side with the Ron Paul-aggrandizing nut jobs who haunt internet chat rooms and fringe “news” sites, but the farm-related bills and issues currently in front of the US Congress are accidentally evil enough to pry my closet libertarian tendencies into the light.
I’m not nutty enough to subscribe to New World Order conspiracies and, if I were, I wouldn’t suspect Democrats are of the cabal. But this is a situation in which the do-gooder urge to protect people from themselves could end up helping multi-national conglomerates and hurting the little guy. And, of course, Democrats have a long history of cozying up to big agri-business.
Food-related health scares are running rampant these days. In addition to slurping up bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a mad cow burger, there’s the possibility of E coli tucking itself into your spinach or tainting your taco experience. Hoof and mouth disease and avian influenza lurk in the background: media-fueled massacres waiting to happen. Salmonella in the nation’s peanut butter was the last straw. US Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, along with 39 co-sponsors—well-intentioned Democrats to the last of them—introduced HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009.
If all of our food came in cans, jars, foil packs and freezer boxes from the manufacturing plants of major corporations, and if feed lots and monoculture crops were the only source of food, DeLauro’s act would make sense. HR 875 includes regulatory measures and funding aimed at preventing the kind of practices that allowed the Peanut Company of America to put its profit margin in front of its customers’ health by exploiting holes in the permitting and inspection process and relying on inspectors stretched too thin and focused too narrowly. If such large, centralized food processing facilities are going to continue to exist (despite my best efforts to will them out of being), they certainly do require more oversight, regulation and tracking of their products.
However, the Food Safety Modernization Act fails to exempt small-scale, regional-based farmers. The farmers who make CSAs, roadside food stands and farmers markets possible would be subject to the same additional regulations that are being considered for huge corporations. Sounds reasonable on the surface—why not have the same standards across the board?—but small, organic farms have proven safety records that are superior to big agri-business and a much more contained distribution area. Also, small farms can’t afford the burdens of additional facilities, packaging, testing, inspection and tracking. Such operations live and die with their reputations, and they are often in the business of feeding their extended neighbors, so food safety comes about in the old-fashioned way: through ethics.
Now, there’s no explicit language in the proposed legislation that says restrictive and expensive regulations will necessarily be applied to such small farms, but there is clear language stating that there can be. Fairness is always the argument used in such scenarios: If Tyson has to meet certain requirements, then all other chicken farmers must do so as well, regardless of whether they raise healthier birds, without antibiotics, that have lower bacteria counts at the point of purchase. But these are clearly not equitable situations and any federal food-safety legislation should reflect that.
DeLauro isn’t trying to hurt small farmers, but her legislation misses the real root of the problem. Ending subsidies for factory farming and putting reasonable incentives in place to encourage holistic farming practices is a better way to approach food safety and food security.
At the same time, the US Senate is considering significantly more extensive tracking of produce (S 475), and the US Department of Agriculture is continuing to move forward with a National Animal Identification System. The NAIS would mandate the implantation of a small radio frequency chip in, yes, every animal. First, there is the pure sci-fi horror of putting chips into every cow, pig, chicken and emu in the county (US livestock is estimated at more than 10 billion animals). Hey, let’s just put chips in all the children, too—soon we’ll all have them! It will make us safer! Second, such a plan is pennies on the dollar for an operation like Tyson that processes 25 billion pounds of meat annually (much of which goes to obesity-inducing fast-food chains), but what’s the cost impact on a farmer with 200 chickens? Quite possibly enough to put that farmer out of business.
Several states have already passed legislation outlawing any such animal identification system. However, HR 875 coincidentally contains language that binds state agriculture departments to enforce federal guidelines.
All appearances to the contrary, however, it’s not a conspiracy, and the intention is not to outlaw farmers markets and organic gardens or any of the other spurious claims. There’s no need to rise up in civil rebellion, but there is a need to contact our representatives in Congress and explain all the potential paths to abuse contained in these deeply flawed legislative initiatives. New Mexico is on the verge of some major success with regional food efforts, so long as a blind, do-gooder federal government doesn’t screw it all up for us.