It sometimes seems as though we’re being buried in a landslide of different issues on all different levels and topics, from international trade agreements to local zoning restrictions. This article provides an overview of some of the current national issues to provide some grist for your thought mill. The key piece is at the end, with the discussion of developing relationships with your elected officials. Whatever the specific substantive issue is, being involved and active is crucial to the future of our movement, now more than ever.
THE FIGHT TO LABEL GMOS
On May 2, the California Right to Know campaign turned in nearly one million signatures to place a ballot initiative on the November 2012 ballot to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The biotech and agribusiness industries aren’t staying quiet, of course, and have launched a prominent campaign to “Stop Costly Food Labeling.” Ironically, one of the core arguments they make against the initiative is that it would be costly to label foods for just one state, although the multinational companies already manage to have two different sets of labels: one for European countries and one for the U.S.
The biotech industry was successful in killing several state bills this year that would have required labeling. The most closely fought battles occurred in Connecticut and Vermont, both of which came very close to passing good legislation. But under threats that Monsanto would sue if the bills passed, both state governors backed down.
While the threat of a lawsuit won’t win in California because the ballot initiative will be put to a vote of the people, the grassroots movement faces a tough challenge. The biotech industry will undoubtedly fund tens of millions of dollars of TV ads to try to convince Californians that the initiative will raise their food costs and cause hardship for California farmers, while whitewashing the harm being done to both farmers and consumers by GMOs. If you live in California, I encourage you to become active with the California Right to Know campaign at www.labelgmos.org. Those outside the state can help by spreading the word to their friends and donating to the effort.
A TROUBLING PARTNERSHIP
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has teamed up with a large agribusiness group, United Egg Producers (UEP), to pass a bill that would regulate the living conditions of laying hens nationwide. HR 3798 requires larger cages for laying hens and “enriched environments,” limits the amount of ammonia in the hen houses, and prohibits forced moulting through starvation. While the conditions in factory chicken farms undoubtedly need to be changed, a close look at the bill reveals numerous problems with it.
The bottom line is that the bill does nothing to change the fundamental conditions of laying hens crammed into cages, fed low-quality feed containing drugs, subjected to constant lighting to force high production, and never allowed so much as a glimpse of the outdoors or a breath of fresh air. The increased size of the cages amounts to just one square foot per hen, barely enough room for the birds to turn around. The so-called enriched environments involve adding items that superficially look natural (such as roosting perches and dustbaths), but that the hens do not make use of because they are not functional. Animal Welfare Approved, a private certification organization, has an excellent article that documents how little these enrichments actually achieve. See www.animalwelfareapproved.org/2011/07/13/rotten-eggs.
The provisions of the bill would be phased in over a fifteen-year period, and it pre-empts any attempt by state or local governments to set higher standards. In essence, in return for very minor improvements in living conditions for the hens, the factory farms are getting a slow phasein and protection against any real requirements to improve the lives of these animals.
While there is an exemption for small producers, it covers only those who handle eggs solely from a single flock of three thousand birds or fewer. Thus, if small farmers work together to create a joint brand for marketing purposes, they will not be exempt from the bill no matter how small their individual flocks are. And those farmers who are trying to expand consumer access to high-quality food by maintaining large enough flocks for wholesale or restaurant distribution are likely to be subject to the bill.
For pastured producers, the welfare standards in the bill are irrelevant because every pastured producer already far exceeds them. But the bill still poses two potentially significant problems for pastured producers: labeling and euthanasia.
First, the bill requires that all eggs from covered flocks be labeled as either “eggs from free-range hens,” “eggs from cage-free hens,” “eggs from enriched cages,” or “eggs from caged hens.” There is no option for labeling the eggs as “pastured.” This labeling requirement will become mandatory just one year after the bill passes. This means that pastured producers will be forced to label their eggs with the same label as a factory farm that allows the minimal access to the outdoors required for the free-range label. This is not likely to have an impact on people selling directly to consumers, but those who sell through retail outlets—even small local coops— will be placed at a significant competitive disadvantage.
Second, the bill includes provisions for how hens in covered flocks must be euthanized. The bill places the American Veterinary Medical Association, an organization that has repeatedly supported factory farm production practices, in charge of what constitutes humane euthanasia. It is unclear whether on-farm slaughter will be allowed, creating a significant problem for pastured producers who sell stewing hens once their layers are no longer productive.
HSUS has developed a campaign of emailing individual sustainable farmers without disclosing that HSUS is behind the campaign. The email sent to farmers also fails to disclose many of the material facts about the bill. I urge everyone to research all of the facts about HR 3798 carefully before responding to any request for support. (Careful research is a good policy when anyone asks for an endorsement!)
Ultimately, HR 3798 will do very little to help animal welfare, but it will certainly do a lot to greenwash the factory farm industry while giving HSUS a lot of good press. Its future is unclear, however. HR 3798 was introduced in January and has yet to receive even a committee hearing. There is significant opposition from other industry agriculture groups who fear the precedent of the federal government setting humane livestock standards, and the bill is not likely to pass this year. But it has garnered a significant number of co-sponsors, and we cannot overlook the possibility that there will be an attempt to include it as an amendment to the Farm Bill. Stay tuned for action alerts.
NEW MEAT LABELING REGULATIONS
On March 1, 2012, a federal rule requiring nutrition labeling of meat went into effect. The rule requires sellers to provide consumers with nutrition information for the “major cuts” of single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products, unless an exemption applies. Nutrition information for these products will be required either on their label or at their point-of-purchase (for example, by sign or brochure). The final rule also requires nutrition labels on all ground or chopped meat and poultry products, with or without added seasonings, unless an exemption applies.
Detailed information about the requirements and the exemptions is posted on the WAPF website at www.westonaprice.org/farm-a-ranch/new-rules-for-labeling-meat.
CODEX LABELING MEETING
On April 18, WAPF’s Tim Boyd attended a meeting of the U.S. delegation to Codex that was promoted as an opportunity to hear the U.S. delegation’s positions on food labeling issues and provide input. The meeting covered only a few topics, for several of which the delegation hadn’t yet determined a position.
The most significant discussion was on the issue of nutrient claims about items that have not been added to the food. For instance, can a food manufacturer claim that an item is “salt-free” because no salt has been added when there is natural sodium chloride in the ingredients? This issue is an echo of the arguments that have been made in the past about producers being able to claim that their meats or milk are “hormone free,” and will need to be watched closely.
The issue of labeling trans fats was also raised, but was left for further discussion to a committee. In the world of organics, the USDA delegation supported the use of ethylene to ripen fruit artificially.
The Codex committee on food labeling met on May 15-18, but the report has not yet been released.
THE FARM BILL STUMBLES ALONG
Policy wonks, grassroots groups, and lobbyists are converging on Congress again to fight over the Farm Bill. This massive bill, which is re-authorized every five years, establishes the government policies and programs for agriculture, nutrition programs like food stamps, rural economic development, agricultural research and much more.
While it is dangerous to try to predict what Congress may or may not do, it is unlikely that the Farm Bill will actually pass this year. Farm bills rarely pass in election years, and the Senate and House drafts of the bill have major differences, including a $32 billion disagreement over how much to cut from food stamps.
Of course, you can never assume that a bill won’t pass. Unfortunately, there are no proposals on the table this year to address the fundamental problems in federal agricultural policy. There have been a few provisions introduced to support local foods, but they amount to very little money to be distributed among far too many farmers and communities who need support because of the flawed agricultural policies that have dominated since the 1970s.
About two-thirds of the spending in the Farm Bill goes to food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (that is, food stamps). But the most controversial section is usually the commodity title, which deals with the crops that are the raw materials of our industrial food system—primarily, corn, wheat and soybeans, as well as sorghum, barley, oats, rice, cotton and other major grain and oilseed crops. This year’s proposals to reform the commodity title and its subsidy programs amount to little more than diversionary tactics. There has been no discussion of the real need to address market fluctuations without creating the distorted incentives for overplanting and monocultures.
From a national policy perspective, the real issue should be how we can address the unique characteristics of agriculture that make our food security—and, by extension, our national security —vulnerable. Unlike other products, the demand for food remains fairly steady because people do not become hungrier when food is cheap, nor less hungry when it is expensive. Yet the supply of food is vulnerable to droughts, floods, pests and even unusually good seasons with high yields. All of these factors can create volatility in the price farmers are paid for their crops. Historically, many farmers would go out of business in good years because the price for their crops would drop too low from over-supply, while consumers would suffer from high prices in bad years.
The farm programs in the 1930s sought to address these very real problems for our national food security. The programs stabilized farm prices by helping farmers manage the supply of major agricultural products like corn and wheat. Farmers who voluntarily joined the program were required to have a certain portion of their land lie fallow each year. (See USDA ERS, “History of Agricultural Price Support Programs, 1933-1984” (AIB 485), Dec. 1985 at p.4.) This policy helped to counteract farmers’ natural tendency to plant as much as they possibly can, which promotes overproduction and drives down crop prices.
The second step was to establish grain reserves. (See USDA ERS at p.13.) During extremely productive years, the government reserve purchased farmers’ surplus of storable grain crops, which prevented prices from collapsing when farmers brought all their crops to market; if farmers had a bad year because of drought or pest infestation, the surplus grain could be released onto the market.
The third tool was a price floor for grains so that the farmers would not be paid less than the cost of producing the commodity crops. (See USDA ERS at p.6.) Combined, these programs ensured a relatively steady price for farmers and consumers.
Starting in the 1970s, however, the focus shifted from our domestic concerns to international ones. Agribusiness pushed the idea that global demand for U.S. products (“feeding the world”) could replace the supply management policies, since excess production supposedly could always be exported for yet more profits. (See USDA ERS at p.27.) Farmers were encouraged to plant “fencerow-to-fencerow” to feed the promised ever-increasing demand for their farm products around the world. Starting with the 1985 Farm Bill, the number of fallow acres was reduced and the crop reserve program was phased out. The programs were completely halted with the 1996 Farm Bill.
When supply management policies ended, farmers made the rational decision for their individual businesses: they planted more. As prices fell, small and mid-sized farmers went out of business, while the largest farmers depended on sheer volume, combined with subsidies, to produce massive amounts of monocultures.
The result of these policies has been fewer farmers, consolidation of the industry, and the rise of giant agribusinesses who are able to purchase commodities for less than the cost of producing them. Yet the current proposals for change in the Farm Bill do nothing to address these fundamental problems. The proposed replacement for subsidies – crop insurance – will continue the incentives for overproduction of monocultures without providing real protection against low crop prices. For now, it appears we should focus our energies on fighting for reforms in areas other than the current Farm Bill, while building a grassroots movement that can make real changes in the next Farm Bill.
DEVELOPING RELATIONSHIPS FOR LONG-TERM CHANGE
While this year’s Farm Bill might not provide much opportunity for WAPF farmers and consumers, that doesn’t mean we should simply throw in the towel. At the federal level, there is still HR 1830, Congressman Ron Paul’s bill to legalize the interstate transport of raw milk which has been sponsored in the Senate (S1955) by Senator Rand Paul. And next year may provide greater opportunities for change at the federal level. At the state and local level, there are numerous initiatives, from raw milk to cottage foods, that can help improve our ability to produce and distribute nutrient-dense foods. At the same time, there are ever-growing threats to local food production from agencies across the country, and we must develop a strong grassroots movement to fight back.
At all levels, one of the key elements to making change is developing relationships with elected officials. Like all people, elected officials respond best to people they know—it’s simple human nature. While the other side has more money than we do, we have more people, and we need to make good use of the strengths that we have.
Many people question the value of trying to educate legislators, because they assume that the legislators care only about campaign contributions. That is an undeniable problem. But the reality is that Big Ag gives most of its donations to a relatively small number of legislators and most of the rest simply acquiesce out of ignorance. And even those who take campaign contributions from Big Ag still have to worry about being re-elected, so the concerns of their constituents do matter.
Every WAPF member can help by meeting with state and federal officials in person. Face-to-face meetings with your elected officials and their staff are a powerful way to get to know them and communicate your views on important issues.
WAPF farmers have additional tools—their farms and their customers. Many legislators have never been to a farm or they remember idyllic childhood days on their grandparents’ farm and believe that farms remain unchanged. Those who realize that times have changed all too often believe that the factory farms are the future of food, and small farms are a remnant of the past and do not actually produce much of value.
Helping our legislators to learn about the real world of today’s family farm is critical to our ability to win the legislative and policy changes that are needed.
A very effective way of educating legislators is to invite them to your farm for a first-hand experience in the real world of food. You can make it an individual visit with you and your family or, even better, invite other farmers in the area and your customers. You can have an event focused specifically on meeting the legislators or a food-related community event such as a market day, a class, a gleaning day. Don’t worry if your farm isn’t an immaculately groomed showplace; your goal isn’t to impress them, but to give them the experience of a real family small farm, up close and personal.
Whether you are a farmer or a consumer, WAPF can help with this process. If you’re interested in meeting with your legislators, send an email to Activism@ westonaprice.org. We’ll talk with you about which elected officials may be the best targets, how to invite them, and how to make it a productive visit.
The failure of the conventional agriculture system is becoming more obvious every day. If we can build our grassroots strength and support the growing number of farmers seeking to find a better way, we can succeed in changing the paradigm.
ACTION ALERT: PROTECT OUR FARMS FROM NEW ANIMAL ID REGULATION
USDA is about to finalize a rule that will cause significant problems for independent ranchers, small farmers, and even backyard poultry owners. Please help protect our farms by telling your representative to put a stop to this!
The USDA is on track to issue a final rule on Animal ID this summer and has not indicated that any major changes have been made from the version it proposed last year. That rule as proposed by USDA would subject cattle and poultry owners across the country to new tagging and paperwork requirements that could collectively cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet the agency has designated the final rule as “not economically significant.”
The bottom line is that this animal ID rule is a solution in search of a problem. The USDA has failed to identify the specific problem or disease of concern, and the real focus of the program is helping the export market for the benefit of a handful of large corporations. The agency has also failed to account for the true cost to private individuals, businesses, and state agencies, creating an unfunded mandate. The new rule will harm rural businesses while wasting taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on the real problems we face in controlling animal disease, food security, and food safety. Please help protect our farms and our right to own animals by contacting your representative today!
Call your U.S. representative and ask him or her to work to stop funding for the Animal ID rule until and unless the agency addresses the full costs of the proposal.
If you don’t know who represents you, you can call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or find out online at www.house.gov
Hi, my name is ____ and I am a constituent from (state). I urge Congressman ____ to work to eliminate funding for the USDA’s Animal Traceability rule. The agency has told the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that the rule is not “economically significant,” but that is simply not true. The rule as proposed by USDA would impose significant costs on independent ranchers, family farmers, backyard poultry owners and livestock businesses.
In a time of economic hardship, it makes no sense to spend our tax dollars on this program when USDA hasn’t properly evaluated the costs or identified specific, concrete benefits. Please work to stop the funding for this unnecessary and burdensome program.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, go to www.farmandranchfreedom.org/Animal-ID-2011
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2012.