Is a bill threatening the future of organic farming?

posted in: Ruminations | 15

Yesterday, I came across a scary article about a suspicious bill concerning food safety issues. “You May Be Arrested Soon For Growing A Tomato,” it warned, and spoke of the bill placing “wildly restrictive regulatory encumbrances on the average vegetable growing Joe-The-Plumber, small organic farmer, or anyone for that matter who may one day decide to grow a small garden.”

Today, I received a scary chain email explaining that the provisions in the same bill will require all farms (and homes) to use specific fertilizers and insect sprays in the name of public safety. It described the outcome as “the end of organic farms and virtually all organic forms of growing food in our country.”

What is going on?

They’re referring to Bill H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009

And the main reason for the uproar seems to be that the husband of one of the Senators behind this bill works for Monsanto, the chemical giant, as attested in both the article and email. The chain email also surmised that the bill is very long and complicated, “a sure sign that there are lobbyists behind it.” It warned that the bill is being rushed through Congress in attempt to get it through before the general populace can take notice (apparently scheduled to be voted on “within the next two weeks”).

I’m not an expert on reading legal verbiage, nor do I want to jump to conclusions, but I don’t like the smell of something here. The bill states its purpose is to implement higher food safety standards, in response to outbreaks of e. coli in spinach, etc. However, most of us know that insects are not responsible for such safety issues and that blasting crops with chemicals only taints food. And what cases of food poisoning from someone’s own vegetable garden have there been that would provoke the Senators to include home gardening in the fold?

Read the bill, pass it along, visit more links below on it, decide for yourself, and let’s add more dialogue on this.

More on H.R. 875:

from Campaign for Liberty

news clips on Youtube

a petition

15 Responses

  1. Mark

    According to Marion Nestle (see link), this email doing the rounds seems to be a bit of bad journalism/reporting and not really about food safety, but more about fear mongering….

    I tend to agree… but, maybe there is something, just no real evidence yet!

  2. Carrie

    I’m not a lawyer, but I am a legislative librarian, so I spend my days looking at bills like this, and I can’t find anything particularly worrisome in this bill. It definitely will not affect backyard gardeners since the law only applies to food in some way engaged in interstate commerce (ie, grown in one state and sold in another).

    It does call for this new Food Safety Agency to create regulations that would:
    “include, with respect to growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations, minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water;”
    (this is the only place in the bill that fertilizer is mentioned), but I don’t read that as mandating that fertilizer be used and I cannot imagine that Congress would do any thing to force the USDA to get rid of the organic designation (nor that agribusiness would even want them too – organic is big money).

    So I don’t think there is much to worry about at this point.

  3. jenna

    You lost all credibility for your cause with this statement: “And the main reason for the uproar seems to be that the husband of one of the Senators behind this bill works for Monsanto…”

    Really? Which senator? I’ll do my own research before jumping to conclusions.

  4. cathy

    Jenna: Let me clarify: I don’t have a cause, just speculating. And describing what the “scary article” and “scary email” both said about the Monsanto exec. (Names mentioned in the first par. of the linked article…)

  5. Prairie Fyre

    That Senator would be Lauro. While HR 875 is the one being used to worry people, there’s a slew of other bills in the pipeline, like HR 814, which may be more problemmatic. So while everyone is either up in arms or pooh-poohing about HR 875, Big Ag may be able to just usher in worse rules. I think there needs to be a “SLOW FOOD” approach to these bills. Slow it down. Read. Discuss. Where is there vague language (a problem!) Are there indications that costly provisions will be applied without regard to size of farm? Who IS behind these bills (who is writing them? Remember, there is a revolving door between government and industry, particularly Big Ag, including Monsanto). Rather than jump on a band wagon in any direction, we each need to do as much reading and discussion, and TALKING TO OUR SENATORS AND CONGRESSPEOPLE about how our food safety laws ought to look.

    As for fear mongering, I think the media did an excellent job at that with regard to the peanut butter and lettuce contamination scares. Certainly, we need food safety laws (and we do! Before we go making new laws, we need to ask,are the ones we have enforced properly?). Who has been responsible for food contamination? Small organic farmers? Or CAFOs?

    We do need to fear all the crap that corporate agriculture puts in our food (like pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, chemical fertilzers), and what they put on the crops (sewage sludge), and what they DO to our foods (genetic engineering), and what they ADD to our foods (like high-fructose corn syrup, and red dye, blue “lake”–what IS that?–BHA/BHT, transfats) to make them barely recognizable as food, and how they LABEL (or don’t!) our foods (they are opposed to labeling and like to disguise MSG with different names), and how much petroleum is being used to plant, grow, process, and transport our food. Do these new laws address any of this? If they don’t, consider the implications!

  6. Viana Muller

    Anyone who cares about either food safety or about family farms/organic farming needs to be contacting their Congressperson to DEMAND public hearings on these food bills. The scary part is the whole scenario — not holding heardngs, bill too long to be read by our legislators, panic mongering about food safety and trying to railroad a bill through in two weeks without hearings. NO WAY! There’s lots wrong with these food bills (have you counted them lately?)as far as food safety goes — no banning of the use of toxic sludge with PCB’s and heavy metals on farm land (HELLO!!!), no banning of animals confined so closely in feed lots that they are constantly sick unless kept on a steady diet of antibiotics which causes antibiotic resistance in human beings are just two critical issues not addressed by these so-called food safety bills. But as a bottom line, we should all insist that FAMILY FARMERS BE EXAMPTED FROM THESE REGULATIONS. Perhaps good for corporate industrial farms who are doing most of the damage anyway and Too much paperwork for family farmers. We need to encourage family farms, not make it next to impossible for them to meet the paperwork requirements of the law.

  7. Justin

    Maybe we should just start a debate as to why the USDA is not actually doing a good job.

  8. EMC

    Since I work at an agricultural university (albeit in the humanities) and we have one of the fastest growing university sponsored organic farms/CSA programs in the country, I brought this concern to them. They tell me you might be hyping something that doesn’t need to become any more viral so as to incite more unnecessary panic. A little more research and analysis (perhaps by someone with a law degree) might have been the more favorable preemptive approach here.

  9. Capitol Hill Barbie

    Ok, I usually try to stick to other issues in the blogosphere (beauty/fashion) but this is ridiculous. I am both (a) a lawyer and (b) worked for the FDA on food safety issues and (c) handled congressional affairs issues for them. I really enjoy this blog and know how influential it is and really wanted to comment on some of the stuff in here.

    First of all, Rosa DeLauro is the LAST person who would be in the tank for Monsanto. Plus, she’s a congresswoman, not a senator. She has been introducing similar legislation with Dick Durbin regarding the creation of a single food agency for years and a vocal critic of the FDA and its “cozy relationship with industry.” Seriously, I’ve had conversations with her and her staff about these very issues.

    Second of all, this will not affect many small farmers or individuals who have a personal farm. Since FDA is a federal agency, it can only regulate farms and companies who operate in interstate commerce. If the farm is only selling at a farmers market down the road in the same state, they will likely not be subject to many of the federal requirements. However, they will be subject to any state regulations.

    Third, the link above does not link to the Washington Post as stated. It links to a non-mainstream news source and the article it links to is filled with factual inaccuracies.

    Fourth, currently, the organic standard is regulated by USDA and is considered by many in the food industry to be an extremely weak standard and used mostly for marketing. It has nothing to do with safety and a tightening of the standard would likely be something that foodies would applaud. On the other hand, many of the requirements for obtaining an organic designation are burdensome for small farms and they don’t bother to seek it anyways. This does not affect how they will operate and they probably don’t qualify to call themselves organic under USDA’s regs right now.

    Fifth, I agree with the first commenter that Marion Nestle’s blog does an ok job of debunking some of the myths about the legislation.

    Lastly, I am really surprised at the public outcry about this bill. It is actually a dream come true for many food safety critics like Public Citizen and CSPI. Many of the concerns about small farmers are actually baseless and I have to wonder if the people behind the email chains and “scary” articles is actually companies like Monsanto.

  10. EMC

    Thanks, Capitol Hill Barbie! I really appreciated your analysis, and it lead me to a little more research of my own.

    Cathy, I hate to be annoying here, but I really wasn’t happy with this post. I still adore your blog and will continue to be a frequent reader.

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