Why Aren't Liberals Standing up for Food Rights?

Quick, name three countries that crack down on small farmers who follow the centuries-old tradition of selling food privately to friends and neighbors.

If you guessed North Korea and Cuba, you are correct. If you are still trying to figure out the third country, here’s a hint: it’s the land of the free and home of private enterprise.  Aside from North Korea and Cuba, the United States has come down on its smallest farms as harshly as any for following the centuries-old tradition of selling food privately to friends and neighbors. 


• In just the last two years, America’s government apparatus has sought severe criminal penalties against three farmers (in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California) for allegedly selling food without a license.

• Two other farmers (in Pennsylvania and Maine) have been hit with government demands for injunctions to prevent them from farming if they continue to distribute food to private groups of customers.

• A third farmer (in Michigan) has been notified, in the last few weeks, that he is being fined $700,000 for raising free-range pigs that he sells privately, and will be fined more if he continues the practice.

These three examples don’t include food clubs and private citizens in locales ranging from Kentucky to Missouri to Maryland hit with court-ordered searches, undercover operations, quarantines, and criminal charges by local, state, and federal authorities.

If these actions were taking place in Europe, Latin America, or Asia, the scenario of a big government backed by big corporations bullying small farmers would likely have American liberals enraged. But, since it’s happening so close to home, it has been virtually ignored by most of the so-called liberal media—except to chide and belittle those who seek out privately available food as people unconcerned with food safety, rabid meat eaters, politically wacko, or a combination of all three.

What’s especially unfortunate about the alienation of liberals over food rights is that much of it appears to be emotional in nature, rather than based on politics, or even ideology. Here are a few of the most commonly perceived reasons I have gleaned during my research into my latest book—Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights—as well as from covering several high-profile court cases involving farmers and food clubs.

Food rights is about undoing food safety regulation. The notion that small farms, because they sell directly to small private groups, should have some kind of regulatory exemption rubs many liberals the wrong way. Regulation, after all, has been the liberal answer to many problems in our society, with generally positive results. In this view, there’s no reason to think that more regulation isn’t the answer to upsetting reports of pathogens infesting seemingly safe foods like cantaloupe, peanut butter or ground beef, and leaving serious illness and even death, behind.

Yet food rights advocates aren’t pushing to undo regulation as much as allow farmers selling directly to small private groups of customers, outside the public network of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, to avoid having to obtain costly licenses and permits requiring special facilities appropriate to large retail and food production operations. So far, juries in Minnesota and Wisconsin have agreed, and within the last year have acquitted two of the farmers charged criminally with failure to have retail and food handler licenses.

Food rights is mainly promoted by raw-milk and Ron-Paul-loving “kooks.” It’s true, former Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian, is a supporter of raw milk. Before he retired earlier this year, he led a legislative effort in the U.S. House that never really got off the ground, to lift a 25-year federal ban on interstate sales and shipments of raw milk. His son, Sen. Rand Paul, has similarly become associated with the libertarian agenda and has been highly critical of the FDA’s crackdown on raw milk and other food producers around the country.  

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.”

The struggle to retain freedom of choice about the foods we put into our bodies should be a fundamental civil right, with sensibly scaled food safety protections in place. What it shouldn’t be is another in a long list of ideological issues between liberals and conservatives. As Retberg suggests it is, at its heart, about community rather than politics and corporate protectionism.


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