Food Safety Modernization Act Debate: Farmers vs. Foodies or Farmers vs. Farmers

Food Safety Modernization Act Debate: Farmers vs. Foodies or Farmers vs. Farmers

The food blogosphere has been abuzz this week with news about S 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Go here and here for background. It appears that amendments to the bill to allow more flexibility for small farms are going to make it into the bill. Yesterday, in response to these developments, a cadre of large vegetable grower organization wrote a letter to congress. Go here to read the full text. Here’s the key excerpt:

Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans. We are appalled at statements by Senator Tester reported today in the Capital Press that ‚ÄúSmall producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture, he said, takes the people out of the equation.”

I think that sentence highlights an important piece of the equation that maybe is lost in the way the story is being reported. Whereas the headlines are pitting farmers market foodies against farmers, this actually is primarily a debate between farmers in the ag community. Tester is talking about two different ways of farming. He probably has in mind the small farmers he knows from Montana more than he has in mind Michael Pollan or locavores. The small scale farmers I know are the biggest critics of large scale, “commodity” farming.

For example, I recently spoke with the folks from the small local dairy, Spokane Family Farm. I wanted to get their perspective on the recent Dairy Management controversy. The husband and wife team were “shippers” with Darigold for many years, which means that they had milking cows that they harvested milk from, and their responsibility ended when the Milky Way truck drove away with their gallons of milk. They had many frustrations with the system. They didn’t like that their milk was being mixed together with other milk, regardless of quality or bacteria counts. They were discouraged by the complicated supply chain between cow and customer. As Trish Vieira described the milk chain, the milk leaves the farm in a non-refrigerated truck where bacteria multiply at rapid rates. Then the milk is unloaded and because of high bacteria counts has to be boiled to 285 degerees which effects the quality and the nutrition. Then, because so much nutrition has been boiled out of it they then add back in undisclosed additives to meet government standards.

Trish made a great point when she said everyone at these different stages along the way is doing a good job, for the most part. The problem in her mind, is that everyone can do a good job at what they are assigned to do in the current system, and the end result is not so good. You end up with farmers’ who are forced to have thousands of cows in order to make a living, which forces them to borrow a lot of money, and in some cases cut corners on quality. You end up with milk processors who are so paranoid about food safety that they “kill” the food in order to sell it. And you end up with consumers who are getting a food that is less nutritious. Trish had a lot to say about the negatives effects of homogenization, and the way it changes the fat molecules so that they are more easily absorbed in the intestines. I’ll have to do more research on that before I ring the alarms on that one. Trish also said that the current system leads to excess milk in the food chain, which is part of the reason why Dairy Management is having to work so hard to sell cheese.

My point is that this is a farmer who is not happy with the current system and their response has been to go small and local. The Tester amendments are intended to help people like the Veira’s be able to have 30 head of cattle and make a living without being squeezed to death by beauracracy in the new Food Safety law. Business is hopping by the way and they are trying to figure out how to meet the growing demand among consumers for local, nutritious, farmer connected milk.

Here is a comment from a dairy farmer in response to my post on Dairy Management:

Thank you for clarifying this! I actually sit on one of the local check-off boards and also as a dairy farmer some of my check-off dollars go to DMI. I agree that the NYT article is a bit confusing and the headlines that were chosen as it was reposted went for the “taxpayer outrage” strategy. I can already hear the dairy industry focusing on this confusion and not on the fundamental problems in the industry and how farmers and eaters actually fare in the system. We have a system based on the assumption of ever increasing volumes of milk (and all other crops for that matter). This is the issue and family farmers are getting hurt by this oversupply and eaters are getting crappy-food promoted to them to get rid of the surplus. This is the problem. Don’t get distracted people, keep watching carefully! Thanks!

I like the way he highlights how “farmers and eaters” aren’t fairing so well in the current system. We have a food system dominated by corporations, and they are really the ones who see the food as a commodity. It’s the farmers’ and the eaters who are struggling in their own ways to reform the system. The current debate on the Food Safety Bill is a reflection of this struggle.

So let’s remember that it’s not the foodies against the farmers. No one is more aware of problems with the food system than farmers. If the system is going to be reformed it’s going to take the eaters and the farmers working together to change it.

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