By Garland Mason
In the past few years, Vermont has seen incredible momentum toward the creation of a community supported sustainable food system built of small farms, food-hubs, and food businesses that create innovative products from locally-grown goods. Meanwhile, the FDA has been making strides toward the drafting of FSMA, formally known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, with potential to quash our progress.
On January 4th, 2011, President Obama signed FSMA into law. Long overdue, FSMA represents the first major overhaul of American food safety policy since 1938.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was created in response to a series of outbreaks of food borne illness, as well as bioterrorism concerns following the attacks of 9/11. We all can agree that the safety of food in the United States is of the utmost importance, especially in light of the increasing severity of salmonella and E. coli infections linked to seemingly benign foods like cantaloupe and spinach. However the rules outlined in FSMA have raised concern among small diversified farmers and their allies.
Despite the fact that congress drafted the FSMA with the caveat that the FDA recognize that the level and type of food risks vary between scales of production and complexity of supply chains, the FDA has ultimately created a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation. It appears that Vermont’s small farmers will be held to many of the same standards as industrial scale agribusinesses, despite the knowledge that the level and type of food safety risk is not universal.
Causes for Concern:
Water. The majority of Vermont farmers irrigate crops using wells, or surface water such as ponds and rivers. While large agribusiness has seemingly bottomless pockets, testing of irrigation water as often as once per week, as required by FSMA, will be a significant cost to small farmers. Compounding the frustration is the fact that there is limited scientific evidence demonstrating the relationship between the pathogens for which farmers will be required to test and the pathogens responsible for food borne disease. Also problematic is that the new rules require that irrigation water that fails the test be treated with chlorine or other anti-microbial pesticides, compromising the commitment to environmental integrity that many of our local farms hold as key to their existence.
Fertilizer. Compost and manure represent a natural way to return fertility to the soil after it has been removed through the harvest of fruits, vegetables or animal feeds. All farms need to return fertility to the soil in some form, and until now, the use of compost and manure have been a low-cost, and low-input way to do it. The passage of FSMA puts strict limitations on the way compost and manure can be used, requiring excessively long waiting periods between application of compost manure to the soil and when a crop can be harvested.
Conservation. Another key complaint farmers have with new FSMA regulation is the restriction of the use of certain conservation practices that allow many of our local farms to work in synergy with their surroundings. The common practice of leaving an untouched streamside buffer has many benefits as a habitat to beneficial insects, raptors and other predators that prey on pest such as mice and woodchucks. Among myriad additional benefits, these buffers also act as a filter, helping reduce runoff of nutrient-rich farm soils, and reducing erosion during flooding events.
Unfortunately, these conservation benefits take a backseat in FSMA. Emphasis has been placed on potential food safety concerns associated with wildlife living in close proximity to farm produce, though there is limited scientific evidence that sheds light on the relationship between wildlife on farms and contamination of food.
The Bright Side
The Food Safety Modernization Act has allowed exemptions to part or all FSMA rules for farms of certain scales. Farms selling less than $25,000 worth of products annually will be exempt. This number represents the total value of goods sold, not the net profit the farmer makes, which means that most farmers hoping to earn enough to support their family on their farm income will not be included under this exemption. Farms with gross sales under $25,000 represent just 4% of our national supply of fruits and vegetables.
There is a second exemption for farms who sell less than $500,000 annually, although all products must be sold to “qualified consumers,” meaning customers, restaurants, or retailers within the same state or not further than 275-miles from the farm. The FDA, however, maintains the authority to rescind these exemptions in light of any perceived food safety concern, requiring no evidence demonstrating the legitimacy of the concern, and with no clear method for a farm to reclaim the exemption.
The good news is that FSMA is open for public comment until November 15th, 2013. If you don’t like the impact FSMA will likely have on small producers and the local agriculture movement, it’s time to speak out. Although the process to submit a comment is a bit daunting, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has listed the steps you can take to submit your comment. To learn more about what FSMA means for local agriculture in Vermont and to learn how to submit your comment, visitsustainableagriculture.net/fsma.
Garland Mason works for the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, heading up the New Farmer Initiative and Farm to School and Institution activities. She lives and farms West Tinmouth.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.