In the last year, we have seen an unprecedented level of national discussion about agriculture. News pundits, presidential candidates, and social media leaders are suddenly talking about farming.
Whatever your views on individuals involved, this represents a wonderful opportunity to bring sustainable agriculture into the mainstream consciousness. There are some pitfalls, of course. Some of the people involved have agendas that are inconsistent with the interests of small farmers and WAPF-oriented consumers. And even well-intentioned people come up with counter productive proposals out of ignorance. So, it’s important for our community to pay attention to the discussions, identify what we think are good solutions and engage.
Much of the attention this year has focused on the impact of the trade wars on conventional farmers, in particular commodity crop farmers. In this arena, the interesting thing is what is not being discussed: the deeply flawed reasons that American farmers are so reliant on export markets. That’s a topic for another day, though.
This article is going to focus on the dramatic rise in interest in agriculture as a solution for climate change. This interest comes after several years during which agriculture, and especially livestock, has been demonized for greenhouse gas emissions. The animal rights, anti-saturated-fat and high-tech communities have all pushed the narrative that eating meat is bad for the environment in order to support their agendas for veganism, highly processed foods and lab-made alternatives.
While recognizing the agendas behind these interests, it’s important to acknowledge the valid concerns. The conventional CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) system is terrible for animal welfare, human health and the environment. Large CAFOs keep animals in inhumane conditions, spread dangerous pathogens such as E. coli 0157H7 and produce mountains of manure that contaminate water supplies and release large amounts of greenhouse gases.
What has been largely ignored—at least until this year—is the fact that we don’t face a choice between CAFOs and meatless diets. There is another alternative, as the WAPF community well knows. Raising livestock on pasture produces meat that is both safe and nutritious, and generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crop production. Indeed, farmers using rotational grazing methods can create carbon-negative operations that sequester more carbon in the soil than they produce, creating a valuable carbon sink.
This is the true solution to the problems with CAFOs, one that produces nutritious food, good conditions for livestock, clean water and air, and healthy soils.
Before discussing this further, let’s first note one of the fake solutions that has been pushed in recent years. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is a coalition of entities such as World Wildlife Fund, meatpackers such as Cargill and Tyson, electronic tag companies like Allflex, pharmaceutical companies like Bayer and Merck, and McDonalds. While I generally promote finding common cause wherever we can, it strains credulity to believe that such a group is interested in supporting truly sustainable (i.e., local, family-scale, pasture-based) livestock production.
Rather, the Global Roundtable is likely to push things such as mandatory electronic ID, claiming that it’s needed so that they can confirm how animals are being raised. They will also probably suggest various tweaks to the CAFO system, perhaps adding a new drug or patented supplement from the participating pharmaceutical companies that reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the animals’ burps.
And then McDonalds can brag about using “sustainably raised” beef. Meanwhile, many of the key players will quietly invest in plant alternatives or lab-raised meats, ready to swoop in with new products to sell to consumers.
But while the Global Roundtable is not the answer, the potential for pasture-based livestock production to truly be a force for good is finally getting some well-deserved attention. Several of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, including both Warren and Sanders, have included supporting regenerative farmers as a key element in addressing climate change. Senator Booker, another presidential candidate contender, has introduced the Climate Stewardship Act, S.2452, which would:
• Provide tens of billions of dollars of supplemental funding for USDA working lands conservation programs, with new funding dedicated to stewardship practices such as rotational grazing, improved fertilizer efficiency and planting tens of millions of new acres of cover crops.
• Double funding for agricultural research programs, including more funding for soil health demonstration trials.
• Triple USDA funding to provide farmers with expert technical assistance on climate stewardship practices.
• Invest in local and regional food systems to increase resilience in rural and urban communities.
In filing the bill, Senator Booker focused on the potential to both help farmers adapt to climate change and to reduce or prevent climate change: “After another year of extreme weather, no one understands the impacts of climate change better than our family farmers and ranchers. … While our farmers face unique impacts from climate change, our farmers are also uniquely positioned to capture and store carbon in the ground, produce clean energy, and to reduce emissions.”
Similar, the Green New Deal (GND) calls “for legislation that assists new and existing farmers and ranchers to convert their operations to regenerative agricultural methods that promote widespread ownership of small and medium-sized farms and ranches, and that revitalizes and repopulates rural communities and promotes sustainable development and stewardship.” The GND “advocate[s] regionalizing our food system and decentralizing agriculture lands, production, and distribution.” It addresses the price disparity that makes high-quality food seem inappropriately expensive: “Food prices ought to reflect the true cost of food, including the health effects of eating processed foods, antibiotic resistance, pesticide effects on growers and consumers, soil erosion, water pollution, pesticide drift, and air pollution.”
Focus on the win. Some Wise Traditions readers probably find a discussion of climate change and the Green New Deal to be divisive. So, consider this: is there a downside to promoting farming and ranching methods that sequester carbon in the soil? The exact same practices that Booker’s bill and the GND call for in the name of climate change also help farmers become more resilient to both drought and flood events, reduce water pollution and protect drinking water and increase the nutritional quality of our food.
You don’t have to support Senator Booker or the Green New Deal to celebrate that the national debate includes supporting our type of farmer. Whatever your position on climate change, the national interest in regenerative agriculture represents an opportunity to counter the vegan myths about livestock production. This is a vital opportunity for pasture-based livestock to become the hero in the narrative for many groups, not just those who value animal-based production for nutrition.
The concern that a crisis will be misused for someone’s agenda is valid and is illustrated by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The best response is not to avoid the discussion or to attack the other speakers, but to come forward with positive solutions.
Even within the WAPF community, there are disagreements as to what that support should be. Is it government programs, such as proposed in Booker’s bill? Is it deregulation of small-scale production? Is it stopping the CAFOs from buying artificially cheap grain and dumping pollutants in the water so that their misleadingly cheap products stop undermining the market for real food?
This debate is healthy and productive—and needs to happen. The growing awareness in our society that agriculture and food have an impact on everyone provides the backdrop for us each to put forward our ideas, listen to others and work together to find solutions.
ALERT FOR PRODUCE GROWERS
We’ve discussed the regulations under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) several times over the years, but it’s important to revisit them because farmers are just now having to deal with the actual implementation and enforcement. In Texas (and potentially beyond), the state agency’s actions threaten the small-farm exemptions to the federal Produce Safety Rule, which regulates farmers who raise fruits and vegetables.
The first exemption to the Produce Safety Rule is for anyone who sells less than $25,000 in produce on average per year. In addition, anyone who sells less than $500,000 in all food on average per year, and who sells more than half directly to either individual consumers and/or to local restaurants and retailers, has a “qualified exemption.” You can find flow charts to help you determine if you are exempt or qualified exempt at farmandranchfreedom.org/fsma/.
The cut-offs are based on a three-year rolling average, so a farmer determining whether he or she is exempt in 2019 would look at their sales in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Moreover, the cut-offs are adjusted for inflation, so that the actual thresholds in 2019 are $27,558 and $550,551. Many of the state agencies around the country are not mentioning the inflation-adjusted numbers, so some farmers may not realize they are exempt. You can find the adjusted cut-off for each year at fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/fsma-inflation-adjusted-cut-offs.
Exempt and qualified exempt farmers and food producers must keep the appropriate records to be able to prove their exemptions. These would include records of gross sales and the sales channel (i.e., farmers market, CSA, restaurants, etc.), as well as an annual analysis of whether they fall within the exemption parameters. A qualified exempt farmer is required to be able to produce such records within 24 hours upon request by FDA or the state enforcement agency.
Unfortunately, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) has gone much further and is claiming authority to pro-actively determine the exemption status of the farm. The agency has started contacting farms and questioning them, and will be requiring qualified exempt farms to submit paperwork every two years. In addition, TDA is asking all farms about their water sources and whether the farm is using compost, manure or other biological soil amendments, and what crops they are growing. Exempt and qualified exempt farms are not required to provide this information to the agency.
Moreover, the agency’s regulations assert that it can enter any farm, including exempt farms, at any time to do an inspection, which is a violation of the constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.
The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance is challenging the TDA’s regulations in court. Currently, no other state appears to be following TDA’s example, but we want to hear if they are! Please contact Judith@FarmAndRanchFreedom. org with questions or information about Produce Safety Rule enforcement in your state.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019