An attack on the local food movement?

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Is the Food Safety Modernization Act now being debated in the Senate the death knell for Vermont’s family farms, farmer’s markets, farm stands, CSAs and even your home garden?

It depends on who you talk to.

Many advocacy groups worry that the bill, even with an amendment designed to protect small farms and CSAs, will shatter the fragile revival of local agriculture.

Other advocacy groups see the bill as the only way to protect the public from food-borne illnesses, which annually hospitalize 300,000 people, 5,000 of whom die.

Then there is a group of "hair-on-fire" people who see black helicopters hovering behind S. 510.

Despite the many myths circulated by those people the bill would not outlaw home gardens, family farms and traditional or organic growing methods, according to the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

It will not bring everyone who grows food under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, does not require new record-keeping requirements or fees for small farms, doesn’t establish any restrictions on the sale of raw milk and doesn’t criminalize "seed savings."

It also doesn’t put farms of any kind under the purview of the World Health Organization or the Codex Ailmentarius, a collection of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice and guidelines developed by WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

However, what S. 510 also doesn’t do is address a number of issues of concern to advocates of local agriculture and organic food, such as the banning of concentrated animal feeding operations, genetically modified organisms, the use of hormones, pesticides, endocrine disrupters and food irradiation and the prophylactic use of antibiotics in livestock.

Of course, there are those who contend S. 510 is nothing more than an underhanded plot by big agribusiness to drive small-time competitors out of business.

That is open to debate because even though direct-to-market food sales grew 120 percent between 1997 and 2007, they still only accounts for .4 percent of total sales, $812 million in 2007, according to the USDA.

That may be tiny compared to nationwide agricultural sales, but it’s a lifeline to the more than 18,000 small farms, 4,700 farmer’s markets and 12,600 CSAs in America.

Could S. 510 cut off that lifeline?

Prior to the Tester amendment, crafted by Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester, S. 510 could have very well done so because it would have imposed a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime on all farms, whether agribusiness or any of the small farms in Vermont.

The Tester amendment also exempts most farm-to-customer direct purchasing.

Dave Rogers, the policy advisor for the Vermont branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said the bill with the amendment "is the best shot we have for protecting small farms and small processors."

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Though NOFA is holding its nose, it is supporting the bill, he said.

However, said Rogers, small-farm advocates need to keep their eyes on a loophole in the bill that would allow the Health and Human Services Secretary to decide what farm or business is too small for regulation.

What’s very alarming for advocates such as NOFA is the fact that the HHS secretary is advised by the deputy commissioner of foods for the Food and Drug Administration -- Michael Taylor, a former executive of agribusiness giant Monsanto.

For one stay-at-home mom who raises her own beef on leased land near Barre, Congress needs to conduct more debate on the bill before approving it because it’s "fundamentally flawed."

Is it really necessary? she asks.

"The FDA and USDA already have a tremendous amount of authority," Bernier told the Reformer. "They could stop food safety problems if they would just use the power they already have."

She is also concerned that Tester’s amendment uses "arbitrary" numbers to determine what is a small farm -- it makes less than $500,000 a year and sells produce within a 275-mile radius. What this means is if she so desired, she could sell her beef at a farmer’s market in New York City but someone just one mile outside of the 275-mile radius would not be able to.

She is holding a rally on Sunday at the Middlesex Park-and-Ride at Exit 9 of Interstate 89 for people who, like her, are concerned that the bill "is just not fair."

But Sandra Eskin, the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Food Safety Campaign, said it supports the bill with the amendment because while regulations have to be "scale-appropriate," they must also be balanced with the protection for the public.

Rather than exempting small farms from regulations, the government needs to help them comply with increased safety requirements, thus reducing the financial burden, she said.

But that’s exactly why many Republicans oppose the bill, because they believe it will add additional regulations and spending, even though the Congressional Budget Office has concluded the bill would have no affect, either positive or negative, on the federal deficit.

The lame-duck Congress is discussing the bill this week.

If it is delayed until the new Senate convenes, it may face even stiffer opposition because of the incoming crop of Tea Party Republicans, many of whom oppose it on the grounds that "government regulation is nearly always a bad idea, that the bill will raise food prices and that America already has a perfectly safe food supply," according to Melanie Warner on bnet.com.

The Reformer opposes the bill because it believes, like Bernier, that the FDA already has the power to regulate food safety, power that it doesn’t use effectively enough. The FDA is reactive, lurching from one crisis to the next, be it contaminated spinach or eggs.

What Congress really needs to do is create legislation that protects small farms, CSAs, foodstands and farmer’s markets and not regulate them out of existence. Small farms and their affiliates are in actuality more accountable because there is direct contact between consumers and producers.

If a locally raised farm product is the source of a food-borne illness, consumers will take legal remedies directly or use their wallets to shut down the offenders. We don’t need the federal government to regulate our local purchases. We are intelligent enough to do it on our own.


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