By Kim Robson:
Back in 2010, Congress empowered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate farms. Recently, the FDA announced proposed new rules to better ensure food safety for the public. The new rules would affect all farms, but organic farming would be the most greatly affected. Time-honored sustainable farming methods that have been used for centuries are in danger of effectively being banned under the proposed regulations.
These rules would burden farms with restrictions on everything from compost to livestock to water and more. Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a national organization that supports independent family farmers, fears that many organic farms will be forced out of business. The restrictions on compost are severe enough to amount to an outright ban. Organic farms with livestock near their crops would also have to clear difficult government hurdles. Farms that use surface water would be required to submit regular water tests. All of these rules were written with food safety in mind, but could amount to many organic farms being unable to grow crops naturally or being unable to afford the changes to their facilities and/or operations. Many may simply shut down, which would be a huge win for big agribusiness and a huge loss for sustainable organic food.
Organic farmers have been using manure and compost for centuries, but the regulations severely restrict “untreated biological soil amendments.” This would include compost, worm castings, compost teas and manure; and it would cover how they’re made, plus their handling, storage, and application.
The main problem is a mandatory waiting period between application of the soil amendment and the harvesting of crops. The FDA is proposing a nine-month waiting period, making it essentially unusable. Fully treated compost, however, would require a 45-day waiting period.
By comparison, certified organic standards have no waiting period on the use of compost. Even raw manure has only a 90- to 120-day waiting period, and these practices have resulted in no reported outbreaks of illness. The FDA’s proposal would destroy one of the core tools for sustainable food production.
The proposed rules here are vague, to say the least, providing extreme discretion to FDA inspectors, leaving farmers to wonder what their individual inspector’s opinion may be. This also would practically amount to an invitation for graft and corruption. For instance, if an inspector sees a “reasonable probability” that livestock grazing in fields will contaminate crops, then a required “adequate waiting period” would be imposed between grazing and harvest. But the regulations don’t specify the length of time that’s considered “adequate”; however, some preamble language implies that it could be nine months, the same as the waiting period between applying raw manure and harvest. This would effectively force a farmer to abandon using that section of his property for the growing season, or require a farmer to take “measures” to prevent the introduction of animal feces. Again, the FDA doesn’t specify what those measures might be.
Combined with the restrictions on compost, this creates insurmountable problems for diversified farms that combine produce and animal production, a key part of which is adding manure to the soil. These diversified farms are both biologically and economically efficient, and have not been shown to pose a high risk of foodborne illness in practice. Even ignoring the expense, many of their methods could not fundamentally be brought to compliance. These farms will be run out of business, based on fear mongering rather than scientific data.
The provisions regarding crop irrigation water are among the most expensive and difficult to implement. They require that farms use water from a public water supply. If not, the farmer must pay for expensive weekly water tests during the growing season. In areas where the growing season can run throughout the year, the cost of such testing would be several thousand dollars per year. Testing must be done at an approved lab, so the sample must be either shipped or driven each week to the lab, which may be several hours away, or the farmer must employ an outside water sampling service.
If the water doesn’t meet the FDA’s standard (based on recreational, not agricultural use), the farmer would immediately lose the use of this water source. Even the FDA admits that it’s highly unlikely any untreated surface water could meet this standard. It would force farmers to either treat the water with antimicrobial chemicals or find a different (read: “public”) water source. In many cases, this requirement alone would be enough to drive organic farmers out of business, as water treatment is a complex and expensive endeavor requiring professional consultation. Not to mention that it would render the crops not organic.
These requirements would burden all types of small-scale producers, both organic and conventional. In addition to the aspects mentioned above, the rules also cover buildings, equipment, personnel training, record keeping and much more.
Organic farmers and their supporters have begun fighting back by submitting comments about the proposed rules to the FDA. We encourage you to contact your Congressperson to express your outrage. Political pressure has had a real impact: the FDA admitted in December that the proposed rules need significant changes, that it would reconsider them, and that it will produce revised rules in the summer of 2014. Whether the changes will truly fix these problems remains to be seen. Please be prepared to be active in this fight again this summer. To stay informed about this important issue and what you can do about it, sign up for email alerts at FarmAndRanchFreedom.org.