Will New Food Safety Bills Really Outlaw Backyard Gardening and End Farmers' Markets?

My inbox has been pummeled in recent weeks by a barrage of emails warning me of the evils of HR 875, a bill currently working its way through Congress. Sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 was one of several bills introduced in the wake of the peanut butter-borne salmonella outbreak. Each of these bills ostensibly seeks to improve food safety with increased regulation.

Critics, paranoid and level-headed alike, point to the disproportionate burden that increased regulation places on small farmers, and many wonder if the banner of food safety is being used as a Trojan horse to create a more favorable business climate for corporate agriculture.

 "If [HR 875] passes, say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer's market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!" announced one email."

Another warned that HR 875 would result in "...criminalization of seed banking, prison terms and confiscatory fines for farmers."

And of course, no serious foodie conspiracy theory would be complete without Monsanto as the architect: "DeLauro's husband Stanley Greenburg works for Monsanto!" claim nearly all of these emails.  

Stanley Greenberg is indeed the CEO of a polling firm that did, indeed, contract with Monsanto. But it's no more true to say he works for Monsanto than it is to say he works for Nelson Mandela - who was also a former client of his firm, according to factcheck.org, which did a detailed dissection of one of the viral emails.

These emails seem to have been propagated largely by well-intentioned foodies, after having originated from a cadre of conspiracy theorists and Ron Paul supporters with too much time on their hands.  

"There is a perfectly legitimate conversation to be had about how we can have food safety regulation without jeopardizing small farms and local food systems," says Patty Lovera, Assistant director of Food and Water Watch. "But it's hard to have a rational conversation via forwarded emails. It's not happening in a way that's going to change the policy."

Lovera says HR 875 won't regulate seed-saving, backyard gardens, or farmers markets. It would, however, split the Food and Drug Administration into separate bodies, one for food and one for drugs. This is a move that Food and Water Watch would support. But unfortunately, she says, it's likely to kill the bill, because splitting the FDA might be too daunting a task for lawmakers to take on right now.

Another bill that's more likely to make it to a vote, Lovera says, is HR 759. While this bill, "the Food And Drug Administration Globalization Act," has drawn relatively little attention, she thinks it would be more likely to cause big problems for small farmers.

HR 759 would extend traceability recordkeeping requirements that currently apply only to food processors to farms and restaurants - and require that recordkeeping be done electronically, placing a disproportionate burden, in terms of time and money, on small farmers. The bill would also establish production standards for fruits and vegetables, which are called "Good Agricultural Practices."

Agriculture practices designed to improve food safety and address environmental, economic, and social sustainability, might sound like a good idea, Lovera says. But as written, the Good Agriculture Practices are mostly relevant to large, corporate farms - which are the source of most farm-related economic, social, environmental, and safety problems to begin with.

All of these bills, ostensibly, are efforts to make factory-farmed food safer so we can avoid E.coli in spinach, downer cattle in school lunches, feathers in chicken patties, and other food-borne horror stories we've grown all-too used to hearing about. But if these regulations are extended to the small, family farms where the problems aren't coming from, it's more than just a legislative overextension. It's a tilting of the playing field grossly in favor of corporate agriculture. And on this point, we all should be paranoid.

"What people don't realize is that if any of these bills pass, we lose. All we will have left is industrial food," says Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which is dedicated to promoting and preserving unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade, and fostering the availability of locally grown or home-produced food products.

One of Stockton's top priorities is stopping the controversial National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Implemented by USDA in 2003 without congressional approval, NAIS is a federal registry program for livestock and for the premises where animals live or visit. The stated purpose of the system is to aid state and federal government response to outbreaks of animal disease.

"NAIS is a safety net for the corporate livestock industry," Stockton told me. "They're the ones with the practices that are creating problems for human and animal health, and they're the ones who need NAIS to cover their backs when something goes wrong. The main threats to food safety are centralized production, processing and long distance transportation."

Food and Water Watch shares Stockton's distaste for NAIS. According ot its web page: "The current plan to create a federal animal identification system ignores existing state animal health programs, puts too much emphasis on privatizing the data collection (forcing small farmers to submit data about their operations to trade associations they don't support), and essentially forces small farmers and ranchers to pay for a safety net for agribusiness."

But, says Lovera, the bills currently under consideration are aimed at the FDA, and NAIS is a USDA program. While she sees a lot of problems with many of the current bills, strengthening NAIS isn't one of them.

Stockton doesn't buy it. If any of them pass, she says, it would ratify NAIS, and strengthen USDA's ability to make it mandatory for all livestock, including your flock of backyard chickens.

So lawmakers, if you're listening, and you want these protestors, ballistic and level-headed alike, to chill out, here is how to get them off your backs: exempt local food systems from the current bills. Include specific language in the bills that will guarantee that small family farms, backyard gardens, personal livestock, farmers markets, and all forms of food self-sufficiency and farmer-direct purchasing are protected. Because the right to buy milk from your neighbor or grow your own food is as inalienable as the right to bear arms. And if you threaten to take away this right, you're going to face a backlash that will make the NRA seem like a bunch of flower-waving Hare Krishnas.

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