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My Turn: Fate of local foods movement is in FDA’s hands

Last week the Hopkins Center auditorium in Hanover was packed with 200 farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont. They were there to discuss proposed regulations under the federal Food Safety Modernization Act. An official from the Food and Drug Administration spoke first. He said we were replacing the 1938 Food Act with a science-based law. The purpose is twofold: to increase food safety and to help the agricultural economy, primarily through increased exports.

Then 36 people from the audience got up to speak.

Farmer after farmer expressed a commitment to local agriculture and food safety. They noted that they eat their own food and sell it to their neighbors and community members.

One farmer asked the FDA officials a direct question: Could they give one example of someone who was hospitalized or died due to eating local produce in Vermont or New Hampshire? They could not answer.

Many farmers said these regulations would jeopardize the economic viability of their farms. They were concerned about the cost of complying with hundreds of new rules on many issues including wildlife, the use of manure and weekly water testing.

Regarding wildlife, FDA said that if any signs of animals showed up, farmers would have to keep them out.

An ecologist pointed out that other federal programs encourage farmers to keep buffer zones on the margins of their fields to encourage wildlife and natural pollinators, which are essential for food production. She said that if farmers have to keep every animal from entering their fields, they will have to clear cut their buffer zones that are ecologically important.

Another speaker said that to be “certified organic,” manure may be used on fields if it is ploughed into the soil in the spring for crops that are harvested in the fall. That practice is supported by scientific evidence. This would be prohibited by the FDA rules, which require 270 days from application of manure to harvest.

An agricultural scientist said farmers want to know if there is scientific evidence supporting these regulations. She said that while there is laboratory evidence and epidemiological studies, there is a complete lack of on-farm science. The FDA agreed that there was a shortage of on-farm research.

The farmers asked,why pass these rules before we have the on-farm science, if the promise is that the rules will be science-based?

There did not seem to be a good answer to that question.

To their credit, FDA officials were patient and listened to every person who spoke. They encouraged people to put their comments in writing before the Nov. 15 deadline.

The United States has seen the growth of a strong local foods movement in recent years. The people who spoke at the session were mostly farmers ages 45 to 65 who have, with the help of their communities, built up the local foods movement. They were worried about the impact of these regulations on the future of farming.

They believe that local food is safe food and should be encouraged as inherently meeting both objectives of the law: safe food and encouraging the agricultural sector of the economy.

The regulators did a good job of listening. It is not clear if they understood the deeper meaning: that they have the fate of the local food movement in their hands, along with it the health of local communities.

(David Trumble runs the Good Earth Farm in Weare.)

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