Friday, January 10, 2014

What you need to know about food and farms this week

jenHello and happy new year! Welcome back from the holidays. Much has happened over the past couple weeks, including many bits of news that we can celebrate as proof that we are indeed gaining wins in the movement to change our food system!

Over the past few months, we’ve asked you to comment on the proposed FDA rules around food safety that would harm family farmers, local and regional food systems, and sustainable farm practices. The FDA heard our voices and they have announced that they will go back to the drawing board! New rules will be proposed in the first half of 2014, with a new public comment period. This is as a direct result of farmers and eaters making their concerns heard—democracy in action!

There are also signs that the big guys in industrial agriculture and food continue to hear, and heed, calls for change. Here are a few examples from this past week:

Smithfield, the world’s largest pork buyer, has asked its producers to stop using gestation crates for pregnant sows by 2022. The change is requested, not required, but the company says that contract extensions "will be less likely" for farmers who keep gestation crates.

McDonald’s, which purchases 1 billion pounds of beef each year, announced a commitment to sustainable beef by 2016. McDonald's will begin purchasing "verified sustainable beef" during 2016 following a two-year ramp up during which it will "listen, learn, and collaborate with stakeholders from farm to the front counter to develop sustainable beef solutions."

General Mills announced that Cheerios will be marketed as GMO free, but what does it mean? The product, made mostly of oats, is already nearly non-GMO because there are no genetically altered oats (yet). The only changes to be made will be sourcing non-GMO products for the little sugar and soy added to the recipe. And the company has said they won’t go through the process of having the product certified by a third party. They also will only be going non-GMO for original Cheerios, not for their flavored Cheerio varieties. So, is this a publicity ploy or does it signify a commitment by General Mills to continue down the non-GMO road for the rest of its products? Only time will tell, but if other manufacturers start following suit, we may be in for some major change!

Yesterday Maine became the second state to pass a law requiring labeling of food products containing genetically engineered ingredients. Maine joins Connecticut, but both states’ laws require other states to also pass their own bills before the provision goes into effect. This is a protective measure to ensure that no state has to stand alone in any battle with the pro-GE lobby, which has proven to have very deep pockets. With the Vermont legislature debating a similar measure right now, and New Hampshire taking one up later this year, New England is a hotspot for GE labeling progress!

A new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that one way to solve the issue of what to do with immense mountains of chicken waste that are produced by our industrial poultry production system might be to make the poultry contractors responsible for it. The theory goes that “if the companies owned the manure, they would have strong incentives to build processing plants to convert it to fertilizer, electricity, or other productive uses.” That certainly makes better sense to us than expecting contract growers to take on all the risk of producing poultry in this way. They simply can’t afford it – a 2001 study found that 71 percent of growers whose sole source of income was chicken farming were living below the poverty line!

Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says the Farm Bill is getting close to completion. But other reports say the new stumbling block (now that the House and Senate have compromised on cuts to the food stamp program) is dairy policy. The debate now centers on a program that limits dairy supplies to help bolster the price of milk paid to farmers.

Meanwhile, ranchers in South Dakota who have up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of losses are still in limbo without a Farm Bill that reinstates disaster programs for livestock producers.

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