Browsed by
Tag: dairy

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 “Small 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.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.