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Is DC With Me?

DC with me?

By Camilla Mortensen

In an era of increasing climate change, it’s more than just the weather that troubles small farmers and organic growers. One minute it seems the government is reaching out a helping hand, the next it looks like bureaucrats back east are working hard to wreak havoc with a farmer’s hard work. 

Change is in the air, just about everywhere at the federal level, for better or for worse. Small farmers are in a holding pattern waiting on Senate bill 510, known as the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, wondering if and how it might be enacted, along with other potential policies. On a sunnier note, recent appointments and programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) give organic farmers some hope. But on the other end of the spectrum, as IGT goes to press, the Supreme Court is ready to issue the first-ever ruling on genetically modified crops in the Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farm case and the outcome of this case, as with any of the current policy shifts, could have far-reaching effects. 

Some of these issues and initiatives already have farmers and organic policy analysts worried; others have them hopeful. For some small farmers, none of this is an issue until it hits them on the ground, whether for good or bad. Walt Bernard of Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis in Dorena, Ore., says he’s not sure if any of this will affect his small farm that sells at local farmer’s markets and through a small CSA. “We’re too small,” he says of federal incentives and pending legislation.

What’s good for the goose

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, or so the saying goes. But when it comes to SB 510 and other proposed agreements, what’s good for the big farmers isn’t necessarily a boon for the small farmer. “Our mantra is one size does not fit all,” says Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF).

This bill grants the FDA stronger authority and enforcement tools, and it requires food processors to develop food-safety plans — all good things. SB 510 is the Senate version of H.R. 2749, passed in July 2009 by the House of Representatives. 

Under the guise of overhauling of food safety system, critics say the Senate version also calls for a $500 registration fee for all facilities, from small to industrial operations. * And in another one-size-fits all move, it calls for on-farm safety standards for fresh produce that could push out small farmers in much the same way federal compliance costs and rules pushed small slaughterhouses out of business in the 1970s, making it more difficult to buy local meat from small-scale producers.

As Scowcroft points out, these concerns “by no means exempt organic family farmers from running a healthy, safe farm operation.” Rather, organic and small-scale farm advocates want to see the bill take farm diversity into account.

Chris Konieczka, one of six employees at Horton Road Organics, a small CSA in the Oregon Coast range, says the farm tries to be “economically sustainable.” This means the farm owners live off the proceeds of the small five-acre farm and pay their employees more than minimum wage, as well as provide interns with a stipend. But potential new laws “could put that type of arrangement in real jeopardy,” Konieczka adds.

Contrary to Internet rumors, one thing SB 510 does not affect is the organic seed industry, according to Matthew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance. “There’s nothing in there as far as putting seed at risk.” Dillon says, “It’s not a perfect piece of legislation and we’re supportive of all the groups that are trying to reform it.”
The food safety bill’s poster child, or in this case poster woman, is Linda Rivera, who nearly died from a strain of E. coli that caused her to develop life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome. But if Rivera has spent almost a year in hospitals, it wasn’t because of an illness caused by food produced at a small farm. Her kidneys and liver shut down and she lost her gall bladder and a part of her colon because she ate raw Nestlé cookie dough. 

E. coli O157:H7 is the same organism that caused the 2006 outbreak traced to spinach. Later studies led scientists to suspect feral swine — California has an estimated 100,000 feral pigs roaming the state — though it’s never been fully proven. This has led to another potential headache for organic farmers: the proposed National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.

NLGMA is not a mandated change, but a potential “agreement,” though it still has some farmers nervous. Under the National Organic Program (NOP) rule, organic farmers are required to conserve biodiversity, but NLGMA targets the wildlife, grasses and wetlands that are integral to organic farming.

NLGMA is “voluntary,” but not joining could hurt the small and organic farmers. Or so its web page ominously warns: “The national marketing agreement is a voluntary program. That said, those parties who do not participate will not enjoy the benefits of the program which may include market preference both domestically and internationally.”

Konieczka says he hasn’t heard much yet about NLGMA, but Horton Road has been selling their leafy greens at the Lane County Farmers’ Market in Eugene, Ore., for 18 years, and he hopes NLGMA wouldn’t financially affect the small farm if the operation didn’t have the money to meet its proposed changes: “The people here who buy our stuff from the farm are familiar with, and trust, our product,” Konieczka says.

The more things change

The more things change, the more they may or may not stay the same. While possible legislation makes its way slowly through Congress, there have been shifts at the administrative level under President Barack Obama’s administration, which indicates that his campaign promise “change” may have some merit, at least for farmers. 

Dillon says, “In terms of seed there is some positive momentum,” even before Obama, like grants that called for proposals for organic specific plant breeding and increased research dollars for organic plant breeding. “But that was developed prior to the Obama administration, so it’s not fair to give him credit,” he says.
Other positives include the Obama administration’s increase in initiatives for organics, including $50 million earmarked for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and an organic certification cost-share reimbursement program for farmers transitioning to organics. There have been increases in the budget for the National Organic Program within the USDA, partly as a result of the pre-Obama 2008 Farm Bill, which also increased the offsets of organic certification costs to a maximum of $750 per year (increased from $500), up to 75 percent of the costs, for any certified producer or handler. 

Charlotte Vallaeys of the Cornucopia Institute says that from the “Know your farmer, know your food” campaign to what she calls a “much more transparent process” under Obama, organics are getting a leg up these days. 

organics are getting a leg up these days. '

A case in point, she says, is when Cornucopia found out through a Freedom of Information Act request that leading manufacturers of infant formula in the U.S. had been adding synthetic accessory nutrients — forms of omega-3 and omega-6 oils — to their organic products. She says USDA employees had determined that the fatty acids violated federal standards and informed Barbara Robinson, former Acting Director of the NOP, that they should be banned from products bearing the federal government’s organic label. Robinson overrode the conclusion and allowed the fatty acids based on a 1995 National Organic Standards Board recommendation for allowance of accessory nutrients. Under the previous administration Vallaeys says, the complaint was dismissed, but “The new administration is very different. They did take it seriously this time and did what’s right.” The USDA issued a memorandum in April 2010 admitting that after consultation with the FDA, their interpretation on the allowance of accessory nutrients was incorrect and requested that the NOSB reevaluate their 1995 recommendation. The USDA will issue draft guidance later this year including a transition time for businesses to bring products into compliance. 

Changes within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have had long-reaching effects as well. Organic advocates have been nervous about Obama’s appointment of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as secretary of the USDA, given his support of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops. He did tear out a parking lot at the USDA and put in an organic garden, but will he put his money where his mouth is?

 According to Vallaeys and other organics watchers, some appointments under Vilsack so far have shown a commitment to organics and small farms. She says at the NOP “it’s always been a problem that they were understaffed. They have a lot more money now and they’ve hired some great new people.”

“In over 30 years of being an organic family farm advocate, I’ve never seen the welcome mat out for organic as broadly as I see it now at the USDA,”

Scowcroft of OFRF agrees. “In over 30 years of being an organic family farm advocate, I’ve never seen the welcome mat out for organic as broadly as I see it now at the USDA,” he says.
These appointments include Miles McEvoy as deputy administrator of the National Organic Program; former OFRF board member Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary of agriculture; Ann Wright, who had worked with the Sustainable Agriculture Commission, as deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs; and as of June 14, Mark Lipson of OFRF became the program specialist for organic farming at the USDA.

When you look at organics and the federal government, Scowcroft says you need to consider it as an ‘evolutionary activist,’ and note the incremental changes over time. He points out that not too long ago, “organic was a communist plot; organics caused starvation,” but over the decades, things have slowly changed.
Back in 1980, he says, the “Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming” under Jimmy Carter called for identifying and drawing out organic resources. “You can look at it as taking 30 years to follow that recommendation, or you can look at how beneficial it will be.”

Scowcroft says, “We are not going to get everything we want. But we may get everything we need.”

At this point Scowcroft says, “Our job is to keep the eye on the more immediate prize, grow it, nurture it and expand it while raising the macro questions about our food system.”

Destroy the seed of evil

“Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin,” warned the swallow in Aesop’s Fables. For many that seed has already sprouted into an empire: Monsanto. 

“I think Monsanto is the Antichrist,” says Ed Smith of Herb Pharm in southern Oregon. “You can quote me on that.”

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in April on the temporary ban on Roundup pesticide-resistant alfalfa. This will be the Supreme Court’s first ruling on genetically modified crops, and could set the stage for future rulings and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enforcement on GMO sugar beet seed and other food plants. 

The original case stemmed from farmers’ fears that one farmer’s Roundup Ready alfalfa could spread its genes to alfalfa in another farmer’s fields, a potentially devastating scenario for an organic farmer and one that has its seeds in reality. Monsanto has sued corn and canola farmers after its GMO seed spread to their fields. And in 2009 in Oregon, GMO sugar beet specklings turned up in soil mix being sold to local gardeners. A sugar beet lawsuit similar to the alfalfa suit could be affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“There will always be a problem; it’s Murphy’s Law. When you’re growing crops in an open field, there’s no way you can control it. What do you do? Put a plastic bag over a 100 acre field?” asks Smith. Horton Road Organics’ five-acre plot might be easier to wrap in plastic, but the spread of GMO seed to a small organic farm is potentially devastating.

The Supreme Court case is dealing specifically with an injunction issue by the Ninth Circuit Court, which ruled that USDA should have completed an environmental impact statement before it deregulated Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa seed. The court issued an injunction that barred the further sale of seed and blocked the USDA from authorizing any other uses of the crop until an impact statement was completed. 

The Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms suit claims the injunction is not legal and Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, has been accused of going to bat and interceding for Monsanto when as solicitor general, her office issued a brief on the case. 

Kagan’s proposed appointment comes on the heels of other Obama administration Monsanto picks like former Monsanto exec Michael Taylor as an FDA food czar and Monsanto lobbyist Islam Siddiqui as chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

“There’s a lot of difference between plant breeding and genetic modification and yet Monsanto often misleads people and says it’s the same thing people have been doing for centuries,” says Smith.
He says, “I grow certified organic corn for the corn silk.” It’s used in some of Herb Pharms’ organic products for urinary tract pain, and irritations of the bladder and urethra. “There’s a plant that I’m growing to turn into a therapeutic product that could be contaminated by GM corn pollen,” he says.

Matthew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance says one of the underlying issues here is food integrity. “It’s a loss of choice for farmers to choose crops, and loss of choice for consumers to choose genetically-engineered-free foods.” 

“There’s no dollar value that can be assigned to that kind of loss. You can’t grow food without seed, if you don’t have seed integrity, you can’t have food integrity,” he says.

According to Dillon incredible improvements have taken place in organic food production, with the very little research money coming for research into organic plant breeding. “If we could throw the kind of money (that’s been thrown at biotech) at problem solving,” he says, “I think we’d see serious gains. If we did accounting on that, we’d see we can far surpass anything biotech has to offer.”

Dillon says that on the horizon is the 2012 Farm Bill. He says he’s hoping to see some kind of farmer protection act that protects farmers from lawsuits when patented genetics cross into their fields inadvertently. Organic supporters would also like to see legislation that gives farmers the right to protection from genetic contamination and gives them compensation if their crops are contaminated. “It’s tough to put the genie back in the bottle,” he says. “The organic community needs to get behind it.”

Horton Road Organics’ Konieczka doesn’t disagree. “Some of these regulations really only serve corporations and people who have money,” he says.

Camilla Mortensen is a journalist in Oregon covering environmental issues for the Eugene Weekly. She freelances for a variety of publications, and moonlights teaching folklore and writing to college students.

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