Farmer's Diary: Food Safey and Modernization Act is Bad for New England’s Farmers

By John Lee

The proposed new food safety rules emanating from that hot bed of unfortunate over-thinking (our federal government) is not a good idea. Founded upon the sad fact that some in our nation’s food supply chain may be careless, ignorant, sloppy, or just plain lazy, the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011 aims to fix all of our food safety issues by shoving all producers under the same tent. Of course this is bosh! The feds have decided that the one-size-fits-all model of legislation is what they can manage. Of course, it is also what their major campaign funders want —too bad for the farmer grossing (not netting!) a mere $500,000 a year or more. The tiniest of small farms will be exempt (less than $25,000 per year; i.e. homesteaders or hobby farmers).

Now, all of this arises out of a now-natural concern about food ‘safety’—the Purell Theory of personal cleanliness (if you can’t see it, you are about to be sickened) and the idea that small farmers are ignorant boors who plant and sell caring not a whit for the consumer. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly here in the Northeast where most farmers sell directly to the end user (you, me, and our neighbors). The problem in America’s food supply is not on the farm but in the lap of the longer supply chains where ‘food’ is no different from widgets. Hence carelessness arises in organizations that are too big and a job is just a job (poorly rewarded at that). Right now, the United States Department of Agriculture is considering selling chicken to China for processing and then re-importing it for your consumption. The administration thinks the savings on labor will off-set the cost of transportation. Who thinks this is a good idea?

An unfortunate perception has reared its ugly head: if people are seen wearing lab coats and hairnets and working around stainless steel in cavernous buildings, then whatever it is that they are doing must be safe and good for us. (Why else would we be getting tons of added sugar and salt in our diets?) Obviously, such is not true. There has been no food-borne cause of death or disease traced back to a produce grower in the Northeast in ages (probably not ‘ever’). Nonetheless, in the interests of public safety, local family farms are being painted with the same brush as Tyson Foods (America’s largest processed meat producer), Archer Daniels Midland et al. It is no small irony that as small family farms become successful in the local market, the market heavy weights throw some of their bought-and-paid-for interest around in our nation’s capital to squeeze the life out of local economies.

If food safety is packaged foods grown in China or by Asian subalterns in sub-Saharan Africa, picked green, wrapped in cello, GMO-certified, and sprayed clean, then the Food Safety and Modernization Act is a good idea. However, as farmers own and manage most of the open space in the Northeast, it will be a nightmare. It will also have a significant impact on our nation’s unemployment numbers as agriculture and agriculture-related industries are significant employers. Why? Because the onerous requirements in the Act to make our food ‘safe’ will make farming even less than marginally profitable and will generally discourage the next generation of farmers from either coming into the business or taking over their families’ farms. There will be a net loss of productive open land even if corporate agriculture moves in to pick up some of the slack. Imagine having your local supermarket as your local roadside market!

According to the Act, ‘safe’ means free of microbial contamination. By extension, if enacted, it will also mean all but free of nutritional quality, rich in antibiotics, and bland. Animal manures and composts will not be permissible on our soils due to growing-season restrictions, many ‘natural’ amendments will be out, and intensive record-keeping will be what takes up the bulk of a farmer’s time. There will be endless inspections by men and women who will know nothing about agriculture, save what is in the Act. They will be paid more than most New England farmers can earn on their farms and at the expense of the supervised. The US government is fear-mongering and pandering to the lowest motives of industrial agriculture. While the government cloaks these rules in ‘science-based’ vernacular, clearly they are not based on common sense.

The Food Safety and Modernization Act only serves the interests of the fearful, bureaucrats, and big agriculture, all of whom see the inroads made by smaller, successful, independent farmers as a threat. We have become a nation of sanitizers and victims of deliberately horrific network news exposes. I would argue that neither of them is good for us.

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John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.