For over a year, Big Agribusiness and Big Food companies have been urging Congress to overturn Vermont’s law for mandatory labeling of GMOs before it goes into effect on July 1. Last summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have overturned all state laws on labeling of GMOs in favor of the mirage of federal voluntary labeling. As we reported in the Winter 2015 issue of Wise Traditions, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a Senate version of the bill in early March, leaving it just one step away from passage.
Thanks to the grassroots outcry, however, the Senate failed to muster the necessary sixty votes to move the bill forward, effectively killing it. Since then, Congress has been quiet on this issue.
In the meantime, Campbell’s has publicly announced that it would label all of its products containing GMOs nationwide. Campbell’s also pledged to support a mandatory nation-wide GMO labeling bill, withdrawing from the industry coalition that has opposed mandatory labeling for so long. Kellogs and Mars have also announced that they will label nationwide, because it makes more sense to do so than to segregate products that will be sold in Vermont; the tone of their announcements, however, indicates that they have not dropped their opposition to mandatory labeling and will continue to seek to block it politically.
A recent report from a New York activist indicates that other companies have quietly started labeling without making any public announcements; packages of candy and chips from multiple other companies bear labels that read “produced with genetic engineering,” or “partially produced with genetic engineering,” the language dictated by the Vermont law. Contrary to industry fear-mongering that such labeling would dramatically increase food prices for American consumers, the labeled candies sell for the same price as the unlabeled.
While the labeling of candies may not be of immediate personal significance to people following a WAPF-style diet, these developments are still of vital importance to us all. On-package labeling provides a realistic opportunity for consumers to start to avoid foods (of whatever kind) that contain GMOs—and by doing so create market pressure for more non-GMO products and a food supply not dominated by these transgenic crops controlled by a few large companies.
While these are very encouraging developments, we know that the corporations are still trying to convince senators that QR codes (scannable designs that take the consumer to the company’s website) are valid alternatives to on-package labeling. (See the Winter 2015 issue of Wise Traditions for more discussion about QR codes.) But the longer we stall any action by Congress on this issue, the more likely we are to succeed. Once the companies have actually implemented on-package labeling, it becomes much harder for them to convince anyone that it’s too expensive or difficult to do what they’ve already done.
Trans -Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement
No news is also good news on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPP). Although Congress gave President Obama extensive authority to negotiate trade agreements under the so-called “fast track” process, Congress still has to vote to approve the final agreement. While attempts to stop such approval have repeatedly failed over the last twenty years, it appears that we now have a realistic chance of stopping the TPP.
Because of the opposition to this massive trade agreement, President Obama has predicted that he may have to wait until the post-election lame duck session in order to get Congress’ approval of the TPP. While stopping Congress from acting during a lame duck session is difficult, since they no longer have to worry about an election in the near future, it is not impossible. The simple fact that the President has admitted that the opposition is so great is very telling.
While we wait for the TPP to be brought forward for a vote, we have to continue to educate Congress about how the TPP favors foreign companies that raise food with lower standards, undercutting locally-raised food and American farmers. Over one hundred sixty agricultural and rural organizations recently sent a letter to Congress pointing out that “the main beneficiaries of the TPP are the companies that buy, process and ship raw commodities, not the farmers who face real risks from rising import competition.” The TPP also undermines inspections of imported foods, further disadvantaging American farmers and producers. Most troubling, the TPP would empower thousands of foreign companies to use the “investor suit” provisions to challenge federal, state or local laws that they claim interfere with their expected profits, bringing suit against our elected officials in accountable international tribunals.
Please watch for action alerts from the Weston A. Price Foundation, and add your voice to the effort to protect our economy and our sovereignty.
Local Meat Processing
While bad legislation is stalled, there is still some movement on one of the few pieces of good legislation for the food movement: the PRIME Act, HR 3187. This bill would allow farmers to take their livestock to “custom” slaughterhouses, which are not subject to the federal inspection requirements, and sell the meat (including individual cuts) directly to consumers and retail outlets within their state. This bill returns power to the states, and has the potential to significantly reduce the burdens and expense placed on small-scale livestock producers raising food for their local communities.
HR 3187 now has twenty co-sponsors from both parties, and has been joined by a companion bill in the Senate, S2651, filed by Senator Angus King (I-ME) and co-sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Even if you have called before, now is a good time to call and encourage your representative and senators to support states’ rights and small farmers by signing on to these bills! You can find out more information about the bill and how to take action, including sample talking points for your call, at http://www.westonaprice.org/get-involved/legislative-updates/federal-policy-update/.
Grass -fed Labeling
A few years ago, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) adopted a standard for “grass-fed” labeling claims. The label was aimed at addressing the problem that some companies were labeling beef as “grass-fed” even if they fed large amounts of grain in the final months of their lives, simply because the cattle had eaten grass for the majority of their lifespan before that. While addressing this abuse was important, USDA’s standard was very problematic, and allowed animals to be confined in dirt pens while being fed hay, as well as being given hormones and antibiotics.
Earlier this year, the AMS withdrew the standard. It wasn’t because the agency recognized that consumers wanted a more robust standard, but because there was an interagency dispute over jurisdiction. As a result, right now, there is no government standard for what “grassfed” means.
There is still government involvement, however, since the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) approves labels on meat products and can deny any label claims that it finds are “misleading.”
If someone wants to put “100% grass-fed” on the label of their meat, FSIS has the authority to require them to show that the animals are 100% grass-fed. But the agency typically requires nothing more than a statement from the producer claiming that the label is accurate; very rarely is any documentation requested, and there is no process for verifying the information. Moreover, if someone wants to put “grass-fed” on the label, it’s up to the FSIS to decide whether or not it’s misleading when the animals are not entirely grass-fed; the agency has not required those two terms to match up in the past.
So, yet again, the burden falls on the consumers to sort through a confusing maze. The American Grassfed Association has an “AGA=Approved” label for grass-fed meats, based on a stringent private certification program, and it is working on a set of standards for dairy. In the meantime—and even after it is established—the best option is to know one’s farmer.
Being at the Table
“You’re either at the table, or you’re on the menu.” All too often, good people let their distaste for politics or big business deter them from engaging with the political process—and the all-too-common result is that a good cause ends up in trouble.
Often, being involved takes the form of mundane or even boring work: simply being places and engaging with the decision makers and other stakeholders. But that involvement is essential to long-term power building for our movement.
Consider what happened with the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a plan to require property registration and electronic tagging and tracking of almost every livestock animal in the country. In late 2005, small farmers became aware of the plan when implementation began at the state level. This plan was developed over more than a decade, at public meetings and events hosted by USDA and large industry players. By the time small farm advocates became aware of NAIS, it was almost too late to stop it. Thanks to an amazing grassroots campaign that brought together thousands of people from all walks of life and all political beliefs, we did stop it. But we cannot afford to be caught so far behind again.
For the last six years, I have represented small farmers on the USDA Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Animal Health (SACAH). This has helped us stay informed on what industry and the USDA are planning, head off some problems early in the process before they gained too much momentum, and even get a few positive developments in.
For example, at the most recent meeting, the discussion about foot and mouth disease took a turn back to Animal ID. Industry representatives and government officials both pushed for mandatory premises ID and promoted mandatory electronic ID as a “vital” part of addressing disease. Without a representative for small farmers at the table, the committee would have almost certainly adopted a resolution urging USDA to move back to the NAIS model (although without using the name). But the committee did not do so precisely because small farm reps were on the spot to oppose such a recommendation. Obviously, it doesn’t end with that—but steps like this help keep us from the sort of crisis we faced in 2005.
On the positive side, there has been a significant shift in both the industry and government attitudes about foot and mouth disease more generally since 2005. Back then, both Big Agribusiness and the government promoted a “stamping out” approach, under which the government would kill any infected animals—and all susceptible animals within a ten-kilometer radius of it, and keep expanding the kill circles until they could be certain there were no more exposed animals. As the evidence about both the futility and the extreme costs of such an approach has mounted, however, even the big players have recognized that this approach does not make sense. While they still promote it as a solution to a “small, localized” outbreak, the main focus has shifted to developing a viable vaccine response. The committee wrote strong recommendations to improve the country’s ability to respond quickly with vaccinations in case of a large outbreak. The recommendations include urging the USDA to consider the needs of small-scale producers and those raising heritage breed livestock in determining how to distribute vaccine.
These are small steps toward shaping government policies that are workable for our farmers. If we take dozens and hundreds of these small steps, over time we can see real change. So look for opportunities to be at the table. Go to local meetings about county land use, visit with your state legislators or their staff at a community event, seek appointment to a state ag advisory council—there are numerous ways and places that you can become part of the discussions.
California Seed Sharing Bill
California is home to nearly fifty seed libraries and many more seed exchanges and seed swap events that are threatened by unclear language in the state seed law, which could impose labeling, testing and permitting requirements on them. The threat of enforcement actions has grown together with the increasing patenting of the seed supply and the takeover of small seed companies by huge corporations like Monsanto.
AB 1810 exempts seeds that are shared through libraries and exchanges from testing or labeling requirements; it
also exempts those involved in seed sharing from having to pay to register with the state. As introduced, AB 1810 would have also exempted “microenterprises,” those that sell less than five thousand dollars annually in seeds. Unfortunately, the commercial seed industry and industry groups such as Farm Bureau opposed any further exemption, and the bill was amended to exempt only noncommercial activities.
AB 1810 passed the California Assembly by a very strong vote in late April and was sent to the Senate. To stay informed on its status and how you can get involved, visit The Sustainable Economies Law Center at www.theselc.org.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2016