Note: Starting this week, each Thursday, Courtney Lowery Cowgill will be rounding up the more interesting and pressing stories from the food and agriculture world. Read something you think should be included next week? Reach her at email@example.com
When President Obama signed into law the the Food Safety Modernization Act on Tuesday, the food and ag story of the year, maybe of the decade, came to a close. Or so we thought.
The bill may be law, but the teeth will come in the funding for it and Republicans are warning that, considering this is a new Congress, the real food fight has just begun.
The bill had its critics, but was largely popular with the food and ag crowds, big and small alike, especially after Montana Sen. Jon Tester amended it to quell the concerns of small producers.
Now, though, it seems to have become a favorite scapegoat of the Tea Partiers. (Glenn Beck even called it the “Death Star.”)
The new chairman of the House subcommittee that manages the FDA, Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, is already promising to cut funding.
He told the Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton late last month:
“I would not identify it as something that will necessarily be zeroed out, but it is quite possible it will be scaled back if it is significant overreach.”
This week, after being sworn in, he told Bloomberg:
“While it’s a great re-election tool to terrify people into thinking that the food they’re eating is unsafe and unsanitary, and if not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians we’d be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a darn good job.”
Marion Nestle, one of the leading advocates in the food safety realm, expressed her concerns for the law in a blog post for the Atlantic this week, calling the FDA’s response to funding questions “not-quite-satisfactory.”
She also wrote in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle:
“The bill’s provisions require the Food and Drug Administration to hire more inspectors just at a time when Republican lawmakers have sworn to cut domestic spending. The FDA also must translate the bill’s requirements and exemptions for small farmers into regulations.
Rule-making is a lengthy process subject to public comment and, therefore, political maneuvering. Watch the lobbying efforts ratchet up as food producers, large and small, attempt to head off safety rules they think they won’t like.”
A few other links to get you up to speed on the issue:
The Christian Science Monitor has a nice piece on the facts and myths surrounding the law.
Marcus Baram of the Huffington Post does a good job of parsing the politics of the law.
And, Deborah Kotz of the Boston Globe digs into what the law will do.
The other big story making waves in the food and ag world is what to do with Roundup Ready alfalfa, now that the court-directed Environmental Impact Statement is done.
Roundup Ready alfalfa — alfalfa that has been genetically modified to resist the popular herbicide, glyphosphate (marketed mainly as Monsanto’s Roundup) was pulled from the American market several years ago when a California court ruled that the USDA had failed to protect the environment by not doing an environmental impact statement before the crop’s release.
Last month, the USDA released the long-awaited EIS (click here to download the full document) and now the agency says it will either allow the re-release of the crop unregulated or with some restrictions. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has promised that the agency will have a decision by Jan. 24.
Vilsack has met with and continues to meet with GMO critics and supporters, searching for a way to allow non-GMO and GMO strains to “co-exist.” After his end-of-the year meeting with stakeholders, Vilsack released an open letter, in which he wrote:
“Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.”
But, that “compromise” is what has critics most worried. When it comes to GMO and non-GMO, the issue at hand is really not how to coexist, but whether they can co-exist and alfalfa particularly cross fertilizes like mad. So, what some might call “co-existence,” others might call “certain contamination.”
As a side note, one of the more interesting exchanges on this issue has been on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. First, the Journal criticized Vilsack for using this stakeholder meeting to politicize a process that should be based on science and free of politics. Vilsack fired back, writing, “My goal was simple: to determine if common ground exists that advances all interests, including those of farmers of GE crops, conventional and organic producers. But agricultural issues are complex and rarely lend themselves to simple solutions.”
Then, Gregory Conko, with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Henry I. Miller, the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, published an op-ed that claims all this litigation over biotech crops will drive up the cost of food.
Finally, on a happier note, another recent story worth a mention is one from the New York Times about how if you really cared about the environment, you’d eat invasive species.
Roasted pigeon anyone?
Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer and editor (formerly of these pages) who also runs Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm near Conrad, Montana. She and her husband grow vegetables, turkeys and ancient and heritage grains. As a farmer and writer, she works on and follows food and agriculture issues closely and each week, rounds up the top stories in this arena for New West. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.