Archive for March 14th, 2009

Why I'm not Panicking About HR 875

Sharon March 14th, 2009

I’ve gotten a lot of emails about HR 875, recently, asking me to weigh in,  which meant that I actually had to go find the text of HR 875, and read it.  This falls in the category of top 10 things I hate about writing – having to read anything created by committee, but I soldiered through it for y’all. 

And I admit, there are some reasons to be a little troubled by this bill (and one not to be – from what I see, its chances of passing are very, very slim) – for example, some state laws about on-farm slaughter may be overridden by this.  The national trackback capacity seems to reinforce the worst excesses of NAIS.  However, it isn’t up there on the “signs of the apocalypse countdown” either.

The rhetoric has been overblown to a destructive degree.  As Tom Philpott points out at Grist:

“I’ve been reading hysterical missives about H.R. 875 for weeks. I could never square them with the text of the bill, which is admittedly vague. For example, the bill seeks to regulate any “food production facility” which it defines as “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation.”

But then again, the USDA already regulates farms. And “24 hours GPS tracking of … animals”? Not in there. “Warrentless government entry” to farms? Can’t find it.

More recently, reading around the web, I found more reasoned takes on H.R. 875. The bill may not be worth supporting — and from what I hear, it has little chance of passing. But it hardly represents the “end of farming,” much less the end of organic farming. The Organic Consumers Association, an energetic food-industry watchdog, recently called the paranoia around H.R. 875 the “Internet rumor of the week.”

The Organic Consumers Association has this to say:

The Organic Consumers Association is not taking a position for or against this bill, but encouraging its members to write to Congress to urge it to enact food safety legislation that addresses the inherent dangers of our industrialized food system without burdening certified organic and farm-to-consumer operations.

Quite sensibly, the OCA wants Congress to avoid “one-size-fits-all legislation.” Regulations that make sense for a 1000-acre spinach farm could push a diversified operation that includes spinach in its crop mix out of business. Sustainable-food advocates should oppose H.R. 875 until it adds scale-appropriate language.

But effective opposition does not mean indulging in fictional rants about it. There’s no evidence that the bill aims to end farming; insisting that it does destroys credibility.”

Tom has this just right.  Overstatement does not help our cause – this is one of the reasons I avoided writing much about the Manna Storehouse raid – because the internet version of this, in which a wild eyed SWAT team attacked innocent coop owners was, ummm…exaggerated.  The best evidence I can find suggest that a Sherriff’s deputy did prevent the family (who had openly engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to conform to existing regulation for food sales – last I checked, when you flout laws you consider unjust, you probably will get a visit from said enforcers) from going anywhere while their facilities were being examined, but the SWAT team waving uzis around was no where to be found.

Now I am not happy about the way our existing laws favor industrial agriculture.  I am not happy about the ways that government regulation has regulated small farmers out of existence.  I don’t like HR 875, and am glad it doesn’t stand much of a chance of passing. I don’t like the assumptions that underlie HR 875, which implies that all agriculture should be regulated uniformly, and that the risk from small farms is equivalent to the risk from massive industrial farms, neither of which are true.

But I think the best way to defeat things like HR 875 are not by exaggerating their danger, but by addressing their limitations in a balanced way.  So much of the job of small farming advocates is undermining the lies told by industrial agriculture – and they tell a lot of lies.  We can’t afford to tell lies – they’ve got the money and resources to magnify any mistake, any falsehood, any mis-statement.  We can’t afford, even honestly, to not make our case on the right grounds.