Virginia needs sensible, sustainable food policy

Published 10:34 am Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hard economic times have spurred an explosion in home gardens with more people realizing that food does not begin and end in the supermarket.

This increase in food awareness, coupled with recent food recalls, has brought increased attention to issues of food safety and farm policy.

Unfortunately, recent proposals fail to take into account the issues underpinning the food safety problems faced by this country.

Congress is seeking to enhance federal oversight of the production of food, thereby increasing food safety. To that end, all food producers would be subject to the same stringent regulations, regardless of their size. The local farmer and his organic or all-natural tomatoes will be treated with the same suspicion as produce from massive industrial “farms,” which grow and process enormous amounts of food at unnaturally high rates, bolstered by synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified seed.

Similarly, small ranches where cattle graze on open fields of grass and are slaughtered one or two at a time in local abattoirs would be subject to the same requirements as the giant meat packing companies whose relentless “protein” production requires that they pump their cattle full of growth hormones and steroids and dose them with antibiotics to combat the dangerous effects of a grain-based diet on the stomachs of animals designed to eat grasses.

The push for food safety ignores the real and important differences between modes of production. In regulating this way, we stand the very real chance of forcing small, sustainable and responsible food producers out of business. The increased cost in both time and money of complying with unnecessarily stringent regulations would be too great to allow many mom-and-pop operations to continue. The answer to our food safety problems is not to regulate to the lowest common denominator but to raise the standard to which all our food producers are held.

Furthermore, these new food safety efforts demonstrate the flawed mindset with which we approach our food. We have been raised to fear our food and to suspect that items available at the grocery store may be contaminated with deadly bacteria or toxins. We have been taught to overcook meats and wash vegetables in specially formulated vegetable wash, available in convenient spray bottles. Sadly, under the current industrial mode of food production, such fear is sometimes warranted. We have come to think of food recalls as a part of modern life. Industrial food producers would like us to think food is something too dangerous to be left to small time growers to produce.

The truth is that these problems exist in large part not in spite of the best efforts of industrial food producers but precisely because of them. Large meat companies race to fatten their cattle for slaughter by feeding them corn, which also encourages the development of a dangerous strain of E. Coli bacteria that sickens those who ingest it.

Similarly, in vegetable production, mono-cropping, the practice of growing large amounts of a single crop in one place, can attract large numbers of pests. Farmers then spray toxic, petroleum-based pesticides, killing not just the pests but all insects in the area. Without beneficial insects, crop pollination and biological pest control becomes much more difficult if not impossible. We become the victims of our own avarice, sickening our animals and our farm fields as well as ourselves in the push for bigger, faster and cheaper supplies of food.

Instead of more testing for pathogens, we need a system by which foodstuffs are raised in a responsible and sustainable way that keeps them free of dangerous pathogens to begin with. When was the last time you heard about a small, organic farmer recalling the produce he sold at the farmers market?

Instead of “modernized” regulation and the resulting increased centralization of food production, we need a decentralized, sustainable model of agriculture that emphasizes safe, clean and responsible food production. Rather than a handful of large industrial “farms” producing our nation’s food, we should promote thousands of locally producing small farms.

Small, local and sustainable food producers are already supplying many thousands of customers through local farmers markets, co-ops, buying groups or Community Supported Agriculture. Buying food from the person who grew or raised it a few miles down the road assures the freshness and cleanliness that industrially-produced grocery store food will never have, no matter how much government regulation and oversight we impose.