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Why Aren't Liberals Standing up for Food Rights?

The US ranks with Cuba and North Korea for coming down on its smallest farms harshly for following the centuries-old tradition of selling food privately to friends and neighbors.

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However, outside the U.S., in Europe and Latin America, support for food rights, as exemplified by the Slow Food and food sovereignty movements, had its origins among liberals and socialists. All that being said, much of the enforcement in the U.S. going on against small farms extends beyond raw milk, involving also the private sale of eggs and meat slaughtered on the farm, among other items. Indeed, the judge in the Wisconsin case, involving farmer Vernon Hershberger, ruled in pretrial motions that raw milk was not to be discussed before the jury so it shouldn’t distract from the real issue of whether the farmer required various permits.

The farmers being pursued by the government are religious fundamentalists; as in, they’re not “one of us.” A good number of the farmers being targeted are Amish—definitely not liberal groupies–but who are sought out by many food clubs because the farms generally adhere to traditional food-raising practices, avoiding antibiotics, and hormones for animals, and genetically-modified feed.

Which, of course, is ironic since most liberal locavores seek out just that kind of local food. Mother Jones, which published an article last year expressing reservations about raw milk’s safety, noted snidely that, “fans of raw milk … tend to defend the stuff with near-religious fervor… .” It’s difficult to respond to religious biases except to say that our Constitution separates church from state for very good reasons.

Food rights supporters are promoting an animal-based diet during a time when we should be moving toward a vegan, or vegetarian, diet. Well-known food author Michael Pollan probably captured the attitude most memorably in his 2007 New York Times Magazine article that began: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The most popular privately-accessed foods are mostly animal-based— raw milk, butter and kefir, eggs, and farm-slaughtered beef, pork, and chicken. Now that raising cattle and pigs has become associated, incorrectly, with heightened levels of methane gas, it’s easy to associate food rights and the desire of many advocates to obtain meat and dairy outside normal regulatory strictures as a peripheral issue at best, and one that condones bad-for-the-planet practices at worst.  

Food rights skeptics should understand that small and local vegetable producers will soon face an onslaught of rules not unlike those for dairy and meat producers. New rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act begin to take effect next year, which gives the FDA huge new powers to inspect farms and enforce standards regarding compost, soil, and, water quality.

Despite this widespread resistance, however, there are encouraging signs that some liberals are beginning to feel a growing level of comfort with the idea of food rights.

An especially strong signal is coming from Maine, one of the nation’s hotbeds of food rights activity. It all started in 2011, when small towns along Maine’s coast began passing “food sovereignty” ordinances, allowing farmers to sell any foods they produced directly to consumers, without state or federal regulatory oversight. Within two years, ten towns had passed similar ordinances.

The state’s Department of Agriculture challenged what was perceived as an assault on state authority by filing suit against two-cow farmer Dan Brown in one of the towns that had passed a food sovereignty ordinance. When a state judge found for the state earlier this spring, food rights activists moved the food rights agenda to the state legislature. There, a proposed law to extend the food sovereignty concept (apart from any specific connection to raw milk) state wide attracted considerable support before being voted down in the legislature.

According to Heather Retberg, one of the original food sovereignty organizers, the votes for food sovereignty in the legislature came from politicians with varied backgrounds and leanings.  “In Maine, we have thus far been able to cross all political boundaries and keep food and community as common ground across the political spectrum,” she said. “The divide that has shown up is along Establishment or large farm versus small farm lines.”

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