‘Tis the season…for state legislators to decide what they will work on in the coming legislative sessions. With the elections over, new and returning state legislators are getting their staffing in order and talking priorities. The exact time frame differs from state to state—some start their sessions in early January, others not until March—but they are all buckling down for work.
Local, sustainably raised food is an issue that can bring people together from all points on the political spectrum. Reforms that help WAPF farmers and consumers also reduce regulatory burdens and the size of government, stimulate small businesses, preserve open space land, improve air and water quality, promote humane animal treatment and more; regardless of one’s political affiliation, it’s a “win.” With the current intense partisan divides, that makes sustainable agriculture an attractive area for policy reforms, since many state legislators would like to find a topic on which they could have a cooperative relationship with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. Not all, of course, but there are those on both sides who want to find areas of common ground.
Other broad political developments also provide opportunities for healthy, local food advocates. Libertarian-oriented conservatives are increasingly recognizing the problems with corporate consolidation and the resulting market dysfunction. At the same time, more progressives are recognizing that food-and-ag issues don’t consist solely of food deserts and SNAP (food stamp) concerns. I recently spoke at a conference of progressive state legislators on the topic of “Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide” using local food policy. The room was completely full, with legislators from Arizona, Texas, Florida, Minnesota, Iowa and many more. And while I was talking with progressive legislators at the conference, I received emails from two conservative legislators interested in food freedom bills.
But these are just openings, and it’s up to each of us to take advantage of the opportunities in order to work for the changes we need to make healthy food easier to raise and access. Have you ever talked with your state representative and senator or their staff? It’s easier than you think! A short in-person meeting, or even a fifteen-minute phone call, goes a long way toward gaining their support for local food. Focus on the issue most important to you, whether that be expanding access to raw milk, broadening your state’s cottage food law, providing incentives for healthy soils or similar issues. What matters is developing a relationship, so that they know that they have constituents who are passionate and knowledgeable about food and agriculture—and so that they can see the potential for positive policy making on their part. The next issue of Wise Traditions will have an article focused on how to be a citizen lobbyist, and in the meantime, you can check out some of the materials posted at http://farmandranchfreedom.org/take-action-center/tools-and-resources/ to help you get started.
You aren’t just what you eat, but what your food eats. How do test tube nutrient liquids sound to you?
It’s baffling how many people are determined to separate humans from animals, whether it is the segment of the environmental movement that believes that animal agriculture is bad for the environment, or the part of the animal rights community that wants everyone to go vegan. While many of their arguments are true in the context of industrial agriculture, with its massive inhumane and polluting CAFOs, the same arguments are simply false when it comes to small-scale, pastured livestock operations. Fortunately, more people in both movements are becoming aware of that fact and moving toward working with us. Yet many continue to seek ways to take meat out of people’s diets.
A few years ago, the opponents of animal agriculture began talk of “clean meat”—meat cultured in a lab from a few cells, which would enable people to continue to have meat in their diets without animals being slaughtered and without the obvious environmental impacts of the CAFOs. Production of lab-grown meat involves retrieving a live animal’s adult muscle stem cells and setting them in a nutrient-rich liquid. The clusters of multiplying cells grow around a “scaffold” of some substance, which helps the tissue take on a desired shape—nuggets or patties, for example.
As is the case with technology nowadays, the idea has moved from “perhaps some day” to “coming soon to a store near you” much faster than anyone, whether proponents or opponents, anticipated. Lab-grown meat isn’t yet ready for commercial sale, but it’s likely to be in the relatively near future. And with that prospect on the horizon, the FDA and the USDA have been arguing over who will regulate it. The FDA regulates the majority of our food supply, including all processed foods. The USDA regulates livestock and meat products: beef, pork, lamb, goat and poultry. So who should oversee lab-grown meats?
After multiple debates and meetings through the summer and fall of 2018, the agencies announced in November that they would split the responsibility, with the FDA overseeing “cell collection, cell banks and cell growth and differentiation,” and the USDA overseeing the production and labeling of the products. At the time this article was going to print, however, Congress was still considering stepping in to assign responsibility to one agency alone.
Regardless of who regulates the product, it is coming—and it will be promoted heavily to environmentally conscious consumers. Absent from the discussion, however, has been any real life-cycle analysis of all the inputs required. The proponents and opponents alike are ignoring the resources necessary to build the labs and produce the liquid nutrients. And the question of the environmental impact of not grazing grasslands is not even on their radar.
Even within the narrow scope of the discussion, concerns have been raised. Bacteria or viruses could sneak into the initial tissue sample, or into the cultured cells as they’re transferred to successively larger quantities of culture medium, or when medium is added to prompt them to grow. And large-scale bioreactors provide another avenue for mass contamination. And what about the nutritional value? It’s a safe bet that the lab-grown meats will not have the same nutrient profile as healthy livestock raised on pasture with mineral-rich diets.
VICTORY AGAINST MONSANTO
In the “good news” category, the first case against Monsanto over the safety of its flagship product, the herbicide Roundup, has been decided in favor of the plaintiff, Dewayne Lee Johnson. A jury found that Monsanto’s weed killer caused the groundskeeper’s cancer and awarded Johnson two hundred eighty-nine million dollars: thirty-nine million dollars in compensatory damages (for his illness and pain and suffering) and two hundred fifty million dollars in punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish companies that juries determine have purposely misbehaved and to deter others from operating similarly.
The trial judge in the case upheld the verdict and the compensatory damages, but slashed the amount of punitive damages to thirty-nine million dollars, for a total award of seventy-eight million dollars. While that is a much smaller financial blow to Monsanto in terms of the immediate award, the judge’s decision is still a victory for both the plaintiff and the larger movement. The jury awarded the punitive damages after it found that Monsanto, an agribusiness based in St. Louis, had purposefully ignored warnings and evidence that its popular Roundup product causes cancer, including Johnson’s lymphoma. The judge’s decision to uphold the verdict, even at a reduced amount, leaves that finding intact.
In the long run, Monsanto—now owned by Bayer—faces many more losses if other juries and judges find similarly. Johnson’s lawsuit was the first case to go to trial, but there are thousands of cases currently pending in U.S. courts alleging Roundup caused cancer. And Bayer is taking the hit. According to one report, the potential liability is as high as eight hundred billion dollars—more than ten times the amount of the Bayer-Monsanto buyout.
Court cases don’t happen in a vacuum—the decision of the plaintiff to pursue the case, the attorneys’ calculation of whether the case was worth pursuing, the judge’s and jury’s initial assumptions and paradigms, are all a function of the larger narrative in our society. This courtroom victory has occurred, at least in part, thanks to the broad movement that has fought to expose the health risks of Roundup and the unethical actions of Monsanto. And, in turn, the jury’s finding will help feed back into the larger movement, helping us to show more people that the agribusiness industry is following the tobacco industry’s playbook. With continued work, we can bring them to similar ends.
Eight years after we killed the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), the USDA is trying to sneak it back piecemeal.
First, a little background for those new to this topic: the NAIS was a joint Big Ag-USDA plan to require anyone who owned even a single poultry or livestock animal to register their property, individually ID each animal with a 14-digit internationally unique number using an electronic tag (microchip or RFID, except for poultry) and report their movements (both inter-state and intra-state) to a database. This expensive, intrusive program was designed to promote international trade during disease outbreaks, increasing corporate profits at the expense of small producers. WAPF participated in a national coalition effort that fought back and succeeded in getting the USDA to withdraw the program in January 2010.
In its place, the USDA adopted a much-reduced set of regulations that apply only to cattle and require only that adult cows have some form of official identification when they cross state lines. Producers can use electronic tags or metal tags or, in states that accept them, brands for their inter-state transports.
But the big agribusinesses and their technology allies have continued to push for a more expensive, intrusive program. Last year, they formed an Animal Disease Traceability Working Group that supposedly represented “the industry”—yet had no one from the grass-fed, organic or small farm portions of the livestock industry. The working group developed a plan that called for requiring electronic forms of ID and for extending identification requirements to intra-state movements.
Making these changes, though, would have required USDA to do a formal rulemaking to change the regulations. And that process would have been open to public comment, as well as having to navigate the administration’s provisions for repealing two regulations for every new one proposed. Rather than deal with that process, USDA appears to have figured out how much it can do without actually changing the regulations.
The plan, announced in late September, is to simply stop providing the free metal tags that producers have used for decades for official identification. Instead of paying for these ten-cent tags, the USDA will instead spend five times as much to do a partial cost share on electronic tags—leaving the states and producers to also pay. And after three years, there is no guarantee that even this partial cost sharing will continue. While the cost of electronic tags is less than two dollars each, that is still a jump—for both the use of our tax dollars and for the narrow profit margins that cow/calf producers often have on a per cow basis.
More significantly, the costs of switching to electronic ID do not end with the tag itself. Not only will producers need to get electronic readers if they don’t want to have to hand-transcribe 15-digit numbers, but the sale barns will almost certainly have to. A full system for a sale barn can run several tens of thousands of dollars, which will have to be passed on to the mostly small-scale producers who are their clients. The same issue will arise with small-scale slaughterhouses. Both the sale barns and the slaughterhouses are a vital part of the marketing chain for independent producers, and we are already facing a shortage of both—any closures would hurt producers who rely on these businesses.
As we noted, USDA is legally able to institute these changes without going through the rulemaking process. But we are looking for opportunities to weigh in through alternative strategies. Stay tuned for actions you can take. And in the meantime, watch your state agriculture or animal health agency closely for any proposed rule changes, since USDA informal policies all too often become state-level rules thanks to both political and funding pressures.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2018