February 5th brought a surprising announcement from the USDA. Secretary Vilsack stated that the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) would be scrapped and replaced with a “new framework for animal diseases traceability.” NAIS would have required every person who owned even one livestock or poultry animal to register their property with the state and federal government, tag each animal when it left its birthplace (in most cases using microchips or Radio Frequency Identification Devices), and report a long list of movements within twenty-four hours. In contrast, the new framework will cover only animals moved in interstate commerce and will encourage the use of lower-cost technology.
A SIGNIFICANT CHANGE
In the fact sheet that accompanied USDA’s announcement, the agency acknowledged that “the vast majority of participants [at the listening sessions in 2009] were highly critical” of NAIS. The agency listed a wide range of objections to NAIS, and later referred to the “very legitimate concerns of the American public and those in Rural America.” Given the agency’s history of characterizing the opposition to NAIS as a lunatic fringe of naysayers, this admission alone represents a significant change.
We have stopped the train that was heading for us. But that doesn’t end the fight. The train could re-start —what will the USDA develop as its new framework? And there are many, many spurs on the rail —what will the States develop for intrastate programs?
One of the key concerns with USDA’s new framework is the scope of “interstate commerce.” In the infamous Wickard v Filburn case in 1942, the Supreme Court held that a federal agency could regulate a farmer growing wheat for his own consumption, based on the theory that this local non-commercial activity could affect interstate commerce if one looked at the cumulative impact of everyone engaging in such activity. Wickard and similar cases led to a great expansion in the scope of federal regulation. Yet it does not mean that every use of the term “interstate commerce” covers intrastate activity.
This issue was raised in a conference call between Secretary Vilsack and the organizations that had participated in last year’s roundtable in DC, including the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. Secretary Vilsack stated that the new program would track animals that crossed state lines so as to trace them back to their state of origin, and that any intrastate tracking was the decision of the state. I followed up by asking whether the USDA would continue to use federal funding as a way to pressure the states to adopt NAIS-type premises registration or technology. The Secretary answered that he does not intend to use federal funding to penalize states for not adopting specific technology or implement NAIS through the “back door.” He went on to say that NAIS had received a “failing grade.” This direct response was a startling change from the circuitous double-talk that USDA officials have used throughout the NAIS program.
We cannot rest on these statements, however, and we must keep up the pressure at every step to ensure that USDA lives up to what it is now saying.
NAIS ON THE STATE LEVEL
Moving past USDA’s new framework, we face many potential problems with state programs. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana have already implemented portions of NAIS. In Wisconsin, in particular, the case against an Amish farmer, Emanuel Miller, who has objected on religious grounds, remains pending. Will other States continue to push NAIS-related technology? In another call with USDA, the participants were asked to come prepared to answer a set of questions, among them, “USDA is committed to utilizing systems and solutions that have been developed over the past few years . . . to support the new traceability approach. What are your thoughts and suggestions on this, including what can be used and what components need to be left behind?” Comments from representatives of industrial agriculture, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, made it clear that they are eager to use the databases and systems that have been developed for NAIS, and they urged that state veterinarians be informed of the supposed value of these systems. The companies who had a monetary interest in NAIS—the meatpackers, microchip manufacturers, database managers, and industrial agriculture associations—will not simply abandon the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, and state programs could provide them with ample opportunity to make money at the expense of small farmers.
NAIS AND THE PRIVATE SECTOR
Along with state programs, there is the issue of the private sector. Given the control that a few companies have over agriculture, pressure to use NAIS-type technology could easily be imposed through market forces. While many farmers in the WAPF community are not part of the mainstream agricultural system, the impact on conventional small farmers could be devastating and ultimately impact us all. Moreover, even farmers who sell directly to consumers often use the mainstream sales barns and hatcheries to buy and sell live animals, leaving them vulnerable to market pressure by agribusiness.
It is critical that farmers and consumers stay involved in this issue. Meet with your state vet to talk about the concerns of sustainable livestock producers and request a seat on the state’s animal identification working group and any working groups on animal disease programs that would have an impact on your farm or ranch. If the agency only involves the industrial agriculture groups or if the recommendations of the working group reflect only those interests, then contact your state legislators and ask that they take steps to ensure that the agency does not impose regulations written by and for industrial agriculture.
Agribusiness control and government over-regulation of agriculture has developed over the course of several decades, and it will not be turned back overnight. But while we remain vigilant and cautious, let’s take a moment to celebrate this grassroots victory. Back in 2005, many people said that it wasn’t worth even fighting because NAIS was inevitable. But because people across the country refused to concede, the train has slowed and stopped. Whether it is the USDA’s “new framework” for interstate regulations, state-level animal ID programs, or issues such as food safety, GMOs, and food processing, now is the time to renew our efforts to protect and grow the movement for local, nutrient-dense foods.
FOOD SAFETY BILL UPDATE
In the last issue of Wise Traditions, I discussed S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. As of mid-March, little has changed on the bill. It is still awaiting action by the full Senate, having been slowed down by the general confusion and discord in the Senate. But it could come to a vote at any time.
“The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act” (S. 510) purports to address concerns over the state of food safety in the U.S. but, as currently written, would actually make our food less safe. S. 510 would strengthen the forces that have led to unsafe, nutritionally compromised food by leaving loopholes for large, concentrated food manufacturers and undercutting small, local producers of safe, healthy foods.
YOUR ACTIVISM URGENTLY NEEDED
It is extremely important to contact your Senators now to urge them to amend or oppose the bill! Big Ag and Big Food have distributed melamine-contaminated milk from China and salmonella-contaminated peppers from Mexico. Yet Congress hasn’t gotten the message that they need to solve the real problems —the centralized food distribution system and imported foods —and not regulate our local food sources out of business. Instead, S. 510 is a “one-size- fits-all” approach that would unnecessarily burden both farmers and small-scale food processors, ultimately depriving consumers of the choice to buy from producers they know and trust. We will need tens of thousands of calls to every Senator to stop this bill, so please don’t wait. Pick up the phone and make that important contact! For detailed instructions and talking points, see below.
TAKE ACTION ON THE PROPOSED FOOD SAFETY BILL S 510
Call both of your Senators. You can find their contact information at www.Senate.gov, or call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 or toll-free at 877-210-5351. Ask to speak with the staffer who handles food safety issues.
Tell the staffer that you want the Senator to amend or oppose S. 510. Engage the staffer in a discussion about the importance of local, nutrient-dense foods to you and your family, and why your local food sources should not be subject to FDA regulation. If you get their voice mail instead of the staff, leave the following message:
“Hi, my name is _____ and I live in ______. I’m very concerned that S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, would impose unfair and burdensome regulations on local food sources, which are very important to me. The Committee version of the bill does not address my concerns, and I urge the Senator to amend or oppose the bill. Please call me back at ____________.”
You can also send an email through the Western Organization of Resource Council’s automated system http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5706/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=1775
1. The major foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls have all been caused by the large, industrial food system. Small, local food producers have not contributed to the highly publicized outbreaks. Yet S. 510 subjects the small, local food system to the same, broad federal regulatory oversight that would apply to the industrial food system.
2. FDA regulation of local food processors is counterproductive and unnecessary. FDA has not used its existing authority well. Instead of focusing its resources on the problems posed by imported foods and large processing facilities, FDA has chosen to target small processors. While approving unlabeled GMOs to enter our food supply, it has interfered with the free choice of informed adults who want access to this healthy food. Simply giving FDA increased authority and power will not improve the food supply unless Congress requires the agency to focus on agribusiness and not small, local producers.
3. Relying on HACCP would harm small processors. Increased regulations and record-keeping obligations could destroy small businesses that bring food to local communities. In particular, the reliance on HACCP (the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system) would harm small food producers. Although the theory of preventative controls is a good one for large, complex facilities, the federal agencies’ implementation of HACCP, with its requirements to develop and maintain extensive records, has already proven to be an overwhelming burden for a significant number of small, regional meat processors across the country. In the meat industry, HACCP has substituted paperwork review for independent inspections of large meatpacking plants, while punishing small processors for paperwork violations that posed no health threat. Applying a HACCP system to small, local foods processors could drive them out of business, reducing consumers’ options for fresh, local foods.
4. FDA does not belong on the farm. S. 510 calls for FDA regulation of how farms grow and harvest produce. Given the agency’s track record, it is likely that the regulations would discriminate against small, organic, and diversified farms. The House version of the bill directs FDA to consider the impact of its rule-making on small-scale and diversified farms, but there are no enforceable limits or protections for small diversified and organic farms from inappropriate and burdensome federal rules.
5. S. 510 favors foreign farms and producers over domestic. The bill creates incentives for retailers to import more food from other countries, because it burdens family farms and small business and because it would be practically impossible to hold foreign food facilities to the same standards and inspections. The bill would create a considerable competitive disadvantage for all U.S. agriculture and food production (see analysis at http://ftcldf.org/news/news-20Oct2009-2.html).
6. Food safety and security both come from a diversified, vibrant local food system. Local foods give consumers the choice to buy from producers they know, creating a transparent, accountable food system without federal government oversight. State and local laws, which are often size-specific rather than one-size-fits-all, are more than enough for local food producers.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In a November 1994 interview on the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT), which created the World Trade Organization, Sir James Goldsmith made the following comments:
The idea is to create what is known today as efficient agriculture and to impose it worldwide. Let me just give you one [impact] of GATT on the Third World. The idea of GATT is that the efficiency of agriculture throughout the world should produce the most amount of food for the least cost. But what does that really mean? What is cost?
When you produce the intensified agriculture and you reduce the number of people on the land, what happens to those people? They are chased into the towns. They lose their jobs on the land. If they go into the towns, there are no jobs, there is no infrastructure. The social costs of those people, the financial costs of the infrastructure has to be added to the cost of producing food.
On top of that, you are breaking families, you are uprooting them, you are throwing them into the slums. Do you realize that in Brazil, the favelas (slums) did not exist before the Green Revolution of intensifying agriculture?
In the world today there are 3.1 billion people still living in rural communities. If GATT succeeds and we are able to impose modern methods of agriculture worldwide, so as to bring them to the level of Canada or Australia, what will happen? 2.1 billion people will be uprooted from the land and chased into the towns throughout the world. It is the single greatest disaster [in our history], greater than any war.
We have to change priorities. Let’s take agriculture. Instead of just trying to produce the maximum amount for the cheapest direct costs, let us try to take into account the other costs. Our purpose should not be just the one dimensional cost of food. We want the right amount of food, for the right quality for health and the right quality for the environment and employing enough people so as to maintain social stability in the rural areas.
If not, and we chase 2.1 billion people into the slums of the towns, we will create on a scale unheard of mass migration— what we saw in Rwanda with 2 million people will be nothing—so as to satisfy an economic doctrine. We would be creating 2 billion refuges. We would be creating mass waves of migration which none of us could control. We would be destroying the towns which are already largely destroyed. Look at Mexico, Rio, look at our own towns.
And we are doing this for economic dogma? What is this nonsense? Everything is based in our modern society on improving an economic index. The result is that we are destroying the stability of our societies, because we are worshipping the wrong god—the economic index.
The economy, like everything else, is a tool which should be submitted to, should be subject to, the true and fundamental requirements of society.
This is the establishment against the rest of society. I am for business, so long as it does not devour society. [But] we have a conflict of interest. Big business loves having access to an unlimited supply of give away labor.
You cannot enrich a country by destroying the health of its population. The health of a society cannot be measured by corporate profitability.
We have allowed the instruments that are supposed to serve us to become our masters.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2010.