Food is the basic building block of our bodies, and food policy and politics permeates every aspect of our lives: the price of our food (and the prolifiration of cheap unhealthy foods), our access (or lack of) to healthy options, deceptive food labeling, the safety and livelihood of our farmers and factory workers, the delicate balance of our ecosystem, and even nutritional and medical advice.
Buying local and organic is not enough. True change requires education and political action.
I asked Judith McGeary, Esq, founder of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, to help us understand why each of us need to care about the laws and regulations that govern our food system. I heard Judith speak at last year’s Weston A. Price Foundation Wise Traditions Conference and encourage you to attend her “Effective Activism” lecture at this year’s Wise Traditions November conference in Dallas.
1. Is buying local and/or organic products enough to create a sustainable food system? Is “vote with your fork” the most effective message for change?
Spending your money consistent with your values is an incredibly important step. But the problem is that we don’t have a functioning free market system where the act of being a consumer is enough to drive change. In the idealized market system, the sellers of a good – in this case, food – respond to consumers’ buying decisions by providing the good the buyers want. But the idealized market system assumes many things, including (1) the free flow of accurate information and (2) numerous sellers in competition with each other, so that the buyers can exercise their choices. Looking at the food system as a whole in this country, neither of these conditions is met.
So we need people to be citizens, not just consumers.
Consider, for example, an issue that many of your readers are probably well aware of: genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Many Americans have indicated that they do not want to be consuming GMOs in their food. Yet, the reality is that almost every American is consuming GMOs.
The reason is a lack of information – consumers are literally unaware of what is in their food. While your readers can (and I hope do) avoid consuming GMOs through their individual buying decisions, those decisions are unlikely to affect the market unless millions of other people make the same decisions. And in order for millions of people to make those decisions, we have to have a way to provide them with the information they need, through massive education drives and labeling campaigns.
A less-well-known example relates to sustainable livestock production. My husband and I raise grass-fed lamb, and a very significant portion of the price we charge our consumers is due to the cost of processing the lambs at a small-scale slaughterhouse. Our local slaughterhouse has to charge high prices because of the morass of regulations it has to deal with. If the regulations were changed, so that they were scale-appropriate, the slaughterhouse could charge us less and we could charge our customers less. As much as I appreciate our customers who value quality food enough to pay our prices, the expense necessarily limits the number of people who buy this type of food. Change the regulations, and you both benefit the consumers who are already investing in quality food AND bring in many more people to our movement.
Voting with your dollar is important – you get healthy food to nourish your body, and you help the farmers who are raising that food stay in business. But the widespread change we need in our food system requires changes in our legal and regulatory system to empower the market to function properly.
2. Last year, much attention was given to S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act. What are some concerns we should be aware of when we hear of legislation that sounds like a good idea?
It’s a cliché, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Some legislators are clearly just doing the bidding of Big Agribusiness, but many others are well-intentioned. Who can be against food safety, after all?
Many of the legislators get their information from the Big Agribusiness lobbying groups. So they write laws and regulations that work well for huge, industrialized, factory-type systems without understanding the impacts on small farmers and artisan producers. I had one legislative staffer say, in confusion, “But don’t you already have the names and contact information of your customers at the farmers markets?” Here was someone who has only bought his food at a grocery store using a “rewards card” that tracks all of his purchases, and it had never occurred to him how impractical it would be for every market vendor writing down the name and address of every person who bought a dozen eggs or some kale.
When you combine that ignorance with the revolving door between Big Ag and the regulatory agencies (USDA and FDA) that implement the laws, you get a very dangerous combination. A legitimate concern about food safety can quickly evolve into rules that are very expensive, if not outright impossible, for small farmers and artisan producers.
We have to get past the clichés and slogans. When you hear “this is about food safety” or “this is about protecting the environment,” (another favorite justification) the response is “That’s great – I’m all for food safety and the environment. So how exactly does this help get us there? And how does this help the food producers who are already doing so much to provide safe, healthy food in a way that is environmentally sustainable?”
3. On August 3rd (2011), there was a multi-agency armed raid at a small food coop in Venice Beach. That same day, Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey followed by a second recall on September 12. How do we make sense of this?
The Cargill recall and Rawesome raid provide a glaring example of the problems with our food system. Cargill had known that its factory had salmonella – it just hadn’t reached actionable levels, they thought. One person died and dozens became ill before Cargill initiated a voluntary recall.
Compare that to what happened at Rawesome. The government’s claim is that Rawesome is acting illegally because it does not have various licenses. Rawesome contends that it doesn’t need government licenses because it is a members’ only operation, not selling to the public. Not one person has ever claimed to have gotten sick from Rawesome’s food. So even if you take the government’s view on the need for licenses, it’s a completely victimless violation of the law.
Now contrast the government’s actions in the two cases. With Cargill, the government let the business decide to handle the problem through a voluntary recall. And despite the serious physical injuries caused by Cargill’s product – including one person’s death – no one at Cargill has been personally fined or charged with a crime. Yet, with Rawesome, the government came in with armed officials, confiscated tens of thousands of dollars worth of food, and put three people in jail.
From a public health perspective, it makes absolutely no sense at all. Unfortunately, it does make sense when you recognize the connections between the agency officials and Big Agribusiness.
4. Are there current food policy legislations we should be aware of?
The 2012 Farm Bill is already a hot topic in DC, and it will be the focus of the debate over agricultural policy in the coming year.
Food safety regulations, at both the federal and state level, are also under debate in different forums. The debate frequently alternates between those who want to increase regulations (often at the expense of small producers) and those who are pushing for scale-appropriate approaches that are workable for small producers.
Less well known, but very important, is something called the GIPSA rule. This is a rule proposed by the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) division of the USDA to rein in some of the worst abuses by the meatpackers and improve competitiveness in the general livestock markets. It’s an important improvement to the current system – and the huge meatpackers are doing their best to kill it by cutting off funding. We’re encouraging people to call their US Senators to support the GIPSA rule, since the Senate is expected to vote on agricultural funding soon.
5. What can people do to help make a difference?
The easiest step is to sign up for email alerts – and be sure to read them and act on them! I know everyone gets a lot of email, but it really is an important tool for activism. Help educate your community by talking with your friends and co-workers about these issues, and encouraging them to become involved.
For email alerts:
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance
Weston A. Price Foundation (members-only alerts)
Food and Water Watch (for a consumer-oriented approach)
Western Organization of Resource Councils (for those in western states)
The next step is to develop an ongoing relationship with your legislators. Call them sometime when there isn’t a vote about to happen, and talk with their staff about how important food issues are to you. Meeting with them in person is a very powerful way to put a face to the issue and impress upon them the significance of food issues to their constituents. I know that many people don’t know where to start when it comes to getting to know their legislators, but we have a tip sheet on our Take Action page and can answer any questions.
The best part is that you don’t have to do any of this alone. When you start becoming active, you join a wonderful community who are working together to make change. We work with people all the time on how they can be most effective, given their specific situation.
This post is linked to Sunday School | Butter Believer.