As 2017 nears, advocates are gearing up for the new session in Congress and state legislatures nationwide. At the state level, work continues on bills to expand access to raw milk, foods produced in home kitchens and more. At the federal level, I anticipate the return of the PRIME Act, to improve access to small-scale meat processing, and potentially other initiatives to reduce the regulatory burdens on farmers producing nutrient-dense foods.
Trying to change decades of bad food policy in this country can feel like a hopeless exercise at times. Without minimizing the challenges—including the fact that it will most likely take another decade or more of dedicated, strategic organizing to achieve lasting change—it’s important to celebrate the victories. There were two significant wins in the last quarter, both of which show the power of grassroots organizing. At the federal level, the death of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement was the culmination of six years of work by millions of people. In Texas, a shorter fight over the rights of raw milk consumers and their agents shows both the impact of individual bureaucrats, and the ability of a grassroots movement to be effective regardless of one individual’s agenda.
THE DEATH OF THE TPP
In the last issue of Wise Traditions, I wrote that “the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is showing signs of being on life support.” Nonetheless, I warned that the lame duck session could prove dangerous, since many members of Congress would no longer fear the voters’ retribution. But the fight was ours to lose, thanks to a broad coalition of family farm and local food proponents, progressive groups and tea partiers, advocates for labor, the environment, and national sovereignty, and more, who had convinced both progressive Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans to oppose the deal.
It is important to realize that opposing the TPP is not equivalent to opposing international trade in general. The TPP and trade agreements like it go far beyond addressing trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas, and instead effectively create the laws under which the people of every participating nation will live. Food, banking, medicine, internet access: the laws governing the standards for these and much more would have been subject to attack as trade barriers. The so-called “investor state dispute settlement” (ISDS) provisions put corporations on an equal, if not preferential, footing with sovereign countries. National, state and local laws could have all been challenged by foreign companies simply for reducing their expected profits, in lawsuits brought in an unaccountable international tribunal, under rules that did not comply with the fundamental principles of due process.
Remember Country of Origin Labeling? While many WAPF consumers know which farm their food comes from, average Americans rarely even know which country is the source of their produce and meat. Years of work by both farm and consumer advocates led to the adoption of Country of Origin Labeling in the 2008 Farm Bill, only to be challenged by Canada and Mexico as an illegal trade barrier. While U.S. courts ruled that COOL was legal, the World Trade Organization ruled that telling consumers where their food comes from is a trade barrier. Congress quickly caved and repealed the law. The loss of COOL is just one example of how our laws have been overridden by trade agreements, even absent the threat of lawsuits from private corporations under the sort of ISDS provisions contained in the TPP.
The grassroots opposition to the TPP started even before the ISDS provisions became public knowledge. Indeed, the secretive nature of the TPP negotiations, which allowed major corporations to provide input but kept the public in the dark, helped trigger protests from a wide range of advocates for small farmers, labor, consumers and other movements in the summer of 2010.
For five years, millions of people in this country and in other TPP nations fought against this corporate power grab. Leaked documents helped fuel the concerns—concerns that were amply justified when the text finally became public in late 2015.
Despite the public opposition, President Obama concluded negotiations and signed the TPP early this year. But the opposition kept the agreement from being sent to Congress for approval. Even the President admitted that he could not garner the votes for it, except perhaps after Election Day, when members of Congress might assume their constituents had short attention spans and would no longer care.
The grassroots outcry against the TPP was so great that even Clinton, who had once called the TPP the “gold standard” for trade agreements, was pushed to oppose it during the campaign. Trump was extremely outspoken in his opposition to the TPP, and his election helped put the nail in the coffin that the grassroots had built. Shortly after the election, Obama and his Congressional allies abandoned plans to seek a vote in the lame duck session.
“People power” beat the combined forces of K Street, Wall Street, agribusiness, big oil and more.
While this is a very important victory, the war is not over. Many of those who pushed for the TPP—corporations, elected officials and lobbyists—remain in positions of power and influence, both in Congress and in the incoming administration’s transition team. The next step is to support true fair trade policies that provide economic opportunity and respect our sovereignty, including in how we feed ourselves.
TEXAS RAW MILK VICTORY
Under Texas law, a dairy can become licensed to sell raw milk directly to consumers. But despite stringent inspection and testing standards, sales are limited to on-farm only. For several sessions, WAPF has worked with the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance and other organizations to amend this law to allow farmers to deliver raw milk and sell at farmers markets. Over the past several sessions, we have made significant progress toward passing the new bill.
In the meantime, however, consumers have worked together to reduce the burden imposed by the regulations; they have formed groups, and either a member of the group drives to the farm to pick up everyone’s milk, or they hire a courier to pick it up for them. In either case, the sale still occurs on the farm, with the group’s representative acting as an agent for each person, legally “standing in their shoes.”
These group arrangements have existed since at least 2005. For several years, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) contended that they were illegal, but took no action to shut them down. Whenever the topic arose, we pointed out that consumers did not somehow lose their normal legal rights just because they drank raw milk; a person can designate an agent to do anything the individual legally could do, and picking up raw milk is no different.
Finally, in 2013, DSHS confirmed in writing that consumers could work together to pick up and distribute their milk.
Over the course of this summer, however, raw milk consumers in Texas were faced with three inspections of private drop points—not the farm, but the location where consumers have chosen to gather to pick up milk from an agent that they had hired. And twice these raids involved law enforcement. If allowed to stand, this change in policy would have created a seriously chilling effect on raw milk farms in Texas and deprived many consumers of access to this healthy food.
Why the sudden change, after over a decade of no enforcement actions and three years of agreed-upon policy?
Between meetings with officials and an Open Records Act Request, I pieced together the following facts:
• In the fall of 2015, the agency staff started work on a set of proposed changes to the existing raw milk regulations. While they still would not have allowed sales at farmers markets, the new regulations would have explicitly allowed farmers to deliver their milk, as well as recognized small-scale cow- and goat-shares as legal. While not as broad as the bill we have been working on, the draft regulations would have been a very significant improvement over the current law.
• Then a new DSHS commissioner was appointed. When Commissioner John Hellerstedt started in January, he put an immediate halt to discussions of the draft regulations. Based on his personal view that raw milk should not be legal, he reversed all the work that had been done.
• The same staff who had seen the need to change the regulations quickly shifted into a “go get ’em” mentality, aggressively seeking ways to bust raw milk producers—even when the delivery was being done by the customers’ agent rather than the farmer.
An individual in a position of power had spoken and was able to use the power of a large bureaucracy to implement his personal perspective. But while that is how the system sometimes works, it’s not the end of the story when people are willing to get involved. Outraged consumers called their state legislators, and a dozen legislators joined Representative Dan Flynn in a letter to Executive Commissioner Charles Smith of Texas Health and Human Services, which has authority over DSHS.
After looking into the matter, Commissioner Smith responded with a pledge that DSHS would take no further actions against raw milk consumers or their couriers.
The issues aren’t completely settled yet. There is still a pending misdemeanor charge against one courier brought by the Harris County Health Department, with a jury trial scheduled for December 14. Since it’s a local matter, the state agency’s position doesn’t moot the case, but it should help the courier’s case.
The incident shows how one person, in a position of power, can cause significant problems. It also shows, however, that we can and must work to enforce the fundamental tenet that we are a government of laws, not of men. On November 14, the raw milk bill—which would allow the farmers themselves to deliver, as well as sell at farmers markets—was filed yet again. It’s time to organize and pass this bill, not only to defend the current level of access to raw milk, but to expand it.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.