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Government overreacts at the expense of small farmers

December 16, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

A curious aspect of American life is that we always seem to get two disasters for the price of one. There's the original disaster, then the follow-up disaster that involves the government's response to the original disaster.

Maybe there's a thread of nobility here. It's the notion that a government "fix" can ensure that nothing bad will happen to us again ever.

And to be sure, there are times that a fix is in order. Trying to advance the cause of socialism, Upton Sinclair instead inspired the government to clean up miserably unsanitary conditions in Chicago's meat-packing plants.

But once some government agency or another gets started, it seldom knows when to stop. Consumer-safety lords who have, at one time or another, undoubtedly done some good have now reached the point where gas stations affix their pumps with the thoughtful message: Do not point nozzle toward face."

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Good advice. I guess.

Bacterial outbreaks that are linked to food are tragic, and occasionally deadly, but they are rare to the point that four deaths attributed to spinach made national, round-the-clock news. Far more people will get sick and die from diets of french fries and cupcakes than from greens. Heart disease kills nearly 1 million Americans a year.

So naturally, the government wants to crack down on spinach.

Specifically, the USDA has proposed a slew of regulations, constraints and testing that, if carried out, could cripple the ability of small and mid-sized producers to grow and sell greens.

So once again, we have a big, agribusiness conglomerate that screws up and it's the family farm that pays the price.

Testing for pathogens at each harvest is nothing to agribusiness, which may only grow one immense crop two or three times a year.

But it could be a serious blow to a small farmer who grows a diverse crop of greens - spinach, chard, several varieties of lettuce, kale - for sale at local markets. Not to mention being a serious blow to people who enjoy locally grown food.

The proposed guidelines also encourage farmers to develop what the Cornucopia Institute calls "sterile fields," eliminating everything from microbes to vegetation that could potentially be a wildlife habitat.

Keep in mind that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that these measures would work. Cornucopia says it could even be counterproductive, since bacteria have to "compete" and without a variety of microbes in the soil, e. coli is more likely to take hold.

"The aim of these rules seems to be for sterile fields that support no life, except for the leafy greens," Cornucopia says.

In an operating room, sterile is good. In life it's not. Parents who do not permit their kids to play on the floor or, for that matter, try to keep them away from any bacteria whatsoever, probably aren't doing them any favors because they have little chance to build up immunities.

And it's common sense that spinach grown right down the road from your home in rich, vibrant soil teeming with life is preferable to a chemically fed product from a sterile field shipped 3,000 miles in a plastic bag.

Of course the big producers would have no problems with laws that effectively squelch competition from a nation of small, family farms. So they not only cause the sickness and deaths, in the end, they get rewarded for doing so.

They also get the breaks when governments outlaw the sale of raw milk and allow agribusiness to co-opt and abuse the word "organic" in ways that force small, truly organic farms out of business.

Big, modern agriculture is a wondrous thing, and it has fed a lot of people, cheaply. But entrusting our entire food supply to a very few is poor policy.

Already, our beef and dairy supply is so genetically centralized and so dependent on one or two strains that one, breed-peculiar bug could be devastating.

Diversity in agriculture is a good thing, and one day we may be thankful that a few farmers out there are maintaining herds of longhorns and galloways in addition to the more ubiquitous angus.

Not only are we putting all our eggs in one basket, we are putting all our meat, dairy and seed into one basket as well. And if that one big basket breaks, we will be dependent on the small, diversified farms that the USDA now seems so intent on putting out of business.

This isn't to say that corporate farming is wrong, immoral or dangerous. We celebrate its success each time we pull a foodstuff off of a grocery store shelf.

But it should exist on its merits, not at the expense of small farmers who provide their communities with a choice - a choice of fresher, more wholesome and tastier foods that are locally produced and don't require a tanker of fossil fuel to get to the markets.

We have a number of these small producers right here in the Tri-State area, whose efforts should be rewarded, not buried beneath another smothering layer of government regulations.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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