HR 875 – Not the End of Organic Farming
A Google search for proposed bill HR 875, otherwise known as the "Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009," brings up 4,830,000 results within .09 seconds. The entries bear such conspiratorial titles as, "Criminalize Organic Farming?" and "HR 875 -- The Food Police, Criminalizing Organic Farming and the Backyard Gardener, and Violation of the 10th Amendment," and the truly horrifying, "HR 875: The End of Organic Farming." Certainly, the internet is all "a Twitter" with scary warnings about this legislation, but are the warnings legitimate? Are we really on the brink of the annihilation of our civil rights because of this proposed legislation?
First, let's consider some facts. Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro proposed the bill, purportedly to address public health problems arising from tainted food. Given the recent food contamination scares--spinach, tomatoes, beef, peanuts, and so on, and given the fact that according to CDC estimates, food contamination causes 76 million illnesses annually and 5200 deaths in the US--calling for stricter food safety guidelines can hardly be considered radical. Then again, according to the critics, the bill veers way off course, using the "safer food" argument as a cover to push a sinister agenda for agribusiness.
Most of the alarmists claim that Representative DeLauro pushed the bill as a favor to her husband, Stanley Greenburg, who works for agricultural giant Monsanto. The bill, they say, is sponsored by Monsanto and is a thinly disguised ploy by Monsanto to take control of all food production and distribution in the US. Since Monsanto's mainstay is producing genetically modified crops, the critics claim that the bill forward's Monsanto's desire to make all crops GMO, doing away with backyard gardening and organic produce.
The bill, says Free Speech TV, would give the US Department of Agriculture the authority to tell organic farmers what to feed their animals and what toxic sprays they must use. It forces farmers to buy drugs and chemicals, "criminalizes organic farming" by claiming that it promulgates seed contamination, and imposes fines of $500,000 for non-compliance, far beyond the means of most small farmers to pay. In short, says the negative press, the bill would allow Monsanto to disallow the use of heirloom seeds or any seeds without patents, strip away property rights, and force industrialized farming on consumers. An editorial by the Campaign for Liberty says the bill makes it possible that "someone with a little backyard garden could get fined and have their property seized."
Obviously, if true, this is very scary stuff indeed. And in fact, HR 875 is a scary bill with some dangerous elements. But, in all fairness, I don't buy the idea that the bill signifies evidence of a conspiracy from Hell to assure that we all eat toxins while the major food corporations get fatter - although, it doesn't take a major stretch to believe that lobbyists for big agribusiness (including Monsanto) were able to influence its creation, even if only indirectly. More likely, though, it is just another piece of misguided political grandstanding that fails in its attempt to do what it says it wants to do--to "protect the public health by preventing food-borne illness, ensuring the safety of food, improving research on contaminants leading to food-borne illness, and improving security of food from intentional contamination."
Let's reconsider the facts. First of all, Stanley Greenburg, the husband of Rep. DeLauro (remember him?), does not work for Monsanto. About a decade ago, he worked for a polling company that had Monsanto as a client, but that's a very, very different relationship than the one being flamed about in the press. Also, Monsanto is not authoring nor sponsoring this bill. In fact, a representative from Monsanto, Bradley Marshall, says, "Monsanto has nothing to do with HR 875. We aren't behind it and don't even have a position on it. You can read about this in detail in our blog." This doesn't mean that Monsanto is the good guy in this scenario; simply that it probably isn't quite the villain the alternative press is making it out to be--at least in this case.
You can also read HR 875 yourself (going to the source -- what a concept), and you will discover that the bill contains no clauses indicating that it would make backyard gardeners use seed banks, nor anything at all about sending home-gardeners to jail nor seizing their land or even regulating what or how they grow produce.
In reality, the bill contains the rudiments of some potentially helpful rules around reporting and containing contaminants, in cleaning up production facilities, and in regulating edible imports, although it doesn't make clear whether the costs it would incur to enforce these regulations would be made up for in effectiveness. It's unclear if the regulations imply that seeds need to be pre-treated or if fungicides and irradiation and pesticides would be required, nor just how effective the prescribed measures might be in preventing food-borne illness, nor how the guidelines would impact small farms. This lack of clarity, of course, is a major flaw that requires that the bill, as written, be rejected. Lack of clarity is open to interpretation after the fact by ignorant bureaucrats - a proven recipe for disaster.
Clearly, the bill needs work and clarification. The fact is that the food safety problems we continually face originate with the agribusiness conglomerates, and those producers really do need stricter oversight. But the bill imposes the same regulations on smaller producers, which could drive those producers right out of business.
As the Organic Consumers' Association points out in an Action Alert, "HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, is a limited-vision attempt by moderate Democrats and Republicans to craft food safety legislation to address the out-of-control filth and contamination that are inherent in our industrialized, now globalized, 'profit-at-any-cost' food system. This being said, OCA does not support HR 875 in its present form, given the fact that, if the bill's regulations were applied in a one-size-fits-all manner to certified organic and farm-to-consumer operations, it could have a devastating impact on small farmers." Again, the bill isn't pretty and does have potentially damaging implications, but it's important to remember that the new administration does seem committed to organic and sustainable practices and is not planning to send Michelle Obama to jail for planting her organic garden on the White House Lawn. Representative DeLauro claims that she's been meeting with organic and small farmers to hear their issues with the bill and is drawing up a list of proposed amendments. In the meantime, if you want to take action to ensure that the evolving legislation reflects your concerns about having access to organic, locally produced food, you can check out this link to my friends at the National Health Federation.
And one final thought. I believe, yet again, the alternative health community has got itself hung up on the pinstripes of a major bill that is highly, highly unlikely to ever pass in its current form -- all the while missing the true threat to health and nutrition, the co-option that goes on in the background without any legislation being passed.