Food and Agricultural Transformation — July 18, 2017

Preserving Diversity in the Food System

I can remember just a few decades ago when it seemed every livestock farmer had a convenient and reliable place to take animals to market, whether to process for their own use, for direct sale to individual customers, or for wholesaling to commercial buyers. Nowadays this is hardly an assumption that can be made anywhere.

There are many reasons for this change, including normal market forces at work. But there’s little doubt that implementation of new meat processing regulations in the 90s had a chilling effect on the marketplace, both because of the complexity of the new HACCP standards, and also due to the sometimes inconsistent way in which those standards were enforced. I knew meatpackers who were operating profitably but went out of business because they tired either of getting a different interpretation of the rules from every new inspector who came along, or from having to train rapidly revolving and less experienced workers to meet the requirements.

To be clear, we all benefit from improvements in food safety, but we all lose out when our options for acquiring fresh, locally and regionally produced foods are diminished. And when we lose options available to purchase food from farmers we know, we are left to the whims of the marketplace in terms of quality and price for sure, but also regarding widespread food safety hazards that sometimes strike in several states before they are recognized and stopped.

For this reason, I have been involved for nearly a decade in responding to new regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that promise to bring government regulators onto fruit and vegetable farms for the first time. Along with partners who are part of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), where I am co-chair of the Food System Integrity committee, we had a big hand in creating appropriate exemptions, particularly for farmers who are direct marketing, defining what a “farm” is, and in general making sure the new rules are appropriate relative to the size of operations being regulated.

One area that remains somewhat contentious is the way in which farmers of various size and description will receive training with respect to FSMA. This is important, not only to help them maintain safety of the foods being produced but because many of them will be encountering inspectors on their farms along the way. To that end, it is critical that comprehensive food safety training is tailored to the tremendous diversity of farms, and farmers, that are out there. Such diverse training opportunities have not been assured by FDA, which represents a tremendous threat to the diversity of sustainable food systems such as what programs like NSAC and InFACT are trying to enhance.

Our many partners within NSAC have formed a working group to design and support food safety training alternatives that would help not only to preserve such diversity, but increase it, making it more likely that, through farming, disadvantaged communities throughout the United States can organize to resolve their own food insecurity issues, and also to add an income source where feasible. To this end, we recently presented a workshop, entitled Promoting Food System Equity and Diversity through Farm Level Food Safety Training, at the 15th Annual Forum of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders network, held in Gainesville, Florida, where I served as a co-moderator. 

There is much work left to be done, but InFACT is very proud to be doing its part to assure the vibrant and very diverse food systems needed for the future. 

Brian Snyder is Executive Director for the Initiative of Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) at Ohio State. Prior to his appointment with InFACT, Brian served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, one of the largest sustainable agriculture organizations in the nation.