"Worms are the unsung heroes of our food chain. Their burrows allow oxygen and water to penetrate the soil, they add fertility and prevent flooding."
- Farming Today, BBC Radio
Testimony of Russell Libby
Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association
Before The Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture
U.S. House of Representatives
May 8, 2012
“Small Changes Make Big Differences on the Ground”
Good morning Chairwoman Schmidt and Honorable Members of the House Agriculture Committee. I am Russell Libby, Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA. MOFGA is the largest state level organic organization in the country, with about 6500 member farms, businesses, and households. Formed in 1971, we started the country’s first state organic certification program in 1972 and an apprenticeship program to match new farmers with experienced teachers in 1975, and hired the first organic ‘extension agent’ in 1986. We now have 26 employees who work on services to farmers, education, and outreach to the general public.
MOFGA’s annual harvest celebration, the Common Ground Country Fair, draws 60,000 people each September to Unity, Maine, a town of 2400, making it the country’s largest organic food event. We also run a highly successful new farmer training program. Of the 140 program participants over the past 12 years, 87% are currently farming. Our USDA-accredited organic certification program includes about 5% of the farms in Maine, and about 20% of the dairy farmers.
MOFGA has been in business for 40 years, and in that time, we have witnessed tremendous growth in organic agriculture and in the opportunity for farmers to rebuild local economies through food production. Our farmers have built a robust direct-to-consumer marketing movement in Maine, with close to 150 farmers’ markets and several hundred farmers offering Community-Supported Agriculture programs that supply about 2% of the families in Maine with produce, summer and sometimes winter, and an increasing array of products. With a number of small investments and no-cost policy changes, the 2012 Farm Bill can facilitate this growth and opportunity.
We are a member of the National Organic Coalition, and work closely with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, so our Farm Bill priorities reflect theirs in many ways.
The Horticulture title of the Farm Bill is critically important for organic farmers. The National Organic Program does an increasingly good job of working through issues that confront organic food producers and processors around the country. The Specialty Crop Grants program is a long-overdue recognition of the needs of fruit and vegetable farmers from around the country.
- Fund national organic certification cost-share at the level included in the Senate farm bill voted out of Committee. Organic agriculture is a strong and growing sector of American agriculture, and organic certification cost-share is an investment in business development for agriculture. Many organic farmers rely on the cost-share program to help them access markets (retailers, specialty food processors). The program also enables farmers to remain in the organic market by offsetting annual certification costs for farmers. Organic producers must meet strict organic standards to be certified, and the costs of certification are going up. As the requirements for the National Organic Program become more strictly defined, the time farmers spend in recordkeeping and compliance increases substantially. Without national organic certification cost-share, farmers here at home will opt not to certify, and organic companies will have to source organic product from overseas instead of from American farmers to meet strong consumer demand.
- Encourage more organic farmer participation in critical conservation programs. The 2008 Farm Bill included important provisions in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for organic farmers in recognition of the historical lack of participation and conservation benefits of these systems. However, both programs are in need of reform to address the unique needs of organic farming systems. Issues such as the unfamiliarity of NRCS staff with organic systems, overlapping planning requirements with the National Organic Program, and lack of adequate planning assistance should be addressed in the next Farm Bill. By the way, one of the places that we’ve been very successful in the past few years is getting our new young farmers to participate in NRCS programs, which helps to strengthen the base for that agency long into the future.
- Help the National Organic Program (NOP) to be more effective. The National Organic Program enforces the national organic standards, accredits certifiers, develops equivalency agreements, handles complaints – in essence, NOP ensures the integrity of the organic seal. These are essential functions to the survival and growth of the organic sector. Additionally, the program requires a capital investment in innovative technologies that will position the program to be able to grow with the organic sector, providing domestic and international oversight, and transparency and streamlining of systems, data, and information. NOP should receive a one-time infusion of $5 million in mandatory funds for the technology upgrade, and then should be authorized to receive appropriations increasing at a rate of 20 percent annually beginning with $10 million in FY 2013.
When things work right, the full range of USDA programs make a significant difference to farmers and the general public. Linking nutrition programs to access at farmers’ markets, expanding EBT programs, developing more opportunities for farmers to supply the school lunch program—all of these things make farmers more profitable.
The largest programs within the Farm Bill are embedded in the Nutrition Title. If farmers are not able to provide food through programs in the Nutrition Title for the people who need it the most, they are shut out of a major income stream. If the people who are eligible for nutrition assistance do not have access to fresh, local produce, they may not get the full nutritional benefits from the assistance they receive. Connecting farmers with consumers who participate in nutrition assistance can benefit producers and consumers.
How can you help this to happen?
- Make it easier for farmers to access EBT programs. The range of marketing options has widened dramatically over the past decade, with farmers’ markets, CSAs, farmstands, buying clubs and other options. Please amend Section 7(h) of the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to treat wireless retail food vendors as fixed locations stores are now treated.
- Increase the ability of school lunch programs to source directly from farmers who meet their standards by:
- Allowing flexibility in schools. Rather than requiring produce purchases through the DOD Fresh program, allow schools the option to use their DOD credit to purchase food directly from local farmers. (Requires amending Department of Defense (DoD) Fresh program in Section 10603(b) of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.
- Similarly, allow schools to use 15% of their ‘commodity’ dollars to purchase locally available foods that in turn help to support their communities. This addresses a key tension in many rural communities. Farmers support their schools through property taxes, and in turn would like their schools to be able to support them through purchases.
Other programs important to the whole.
Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program. As interest in direct markets grows, farmers innovate to supply more. The expanded Farmers’ Market Promotion Program continues to serve direct marketers, but also includes those farm businesses that are trying to develop farm to institution and food hub opportunities across the country. It deserves more funding: the $30 million proposed in the Local Foods, Farms and Jobs Act will only scratch the surface of the current interest. Every new market opened or expanded through the program provides more jobs and keeps money circulating in the many participating communities.
Seeds and breeds. I understand that the prevailing worldview is that the solutions for the future revolve around biotechnology, but I want to say a few words in favor of all-purpose, traditional breeding. In the late 1800’s, farmers in my part of western Kennebec County, Maine, were deeply engaged in the refinement of the Hereford as a cattle breed suitable for the U.S. The dry bean varieties that work in our humid Northeast climate were selected over long stretches of time by farmers, and then further refined by plant breeders at public universities. Even now farmers in New England benefit from plant breeding done at the University of New Hampshire by Brent Loy, who has developed melons and pumpkins that thrive in the Northeast. In our rush to the cellular approach, I hope we don’t lose sight of the value of traditional plant breeding. The Seeds and Breeds provisions of the last Farm Bill were a good starting point, but we need the public plant breeders and the long-term commitment to make those varieties available.
Expanding Economic Opportunities
In conclusion, markets for farmers are changing rapidly. There are thousands of new farmers’ markets around the country and Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are also rising in number. In Maine, the number of farmers’ markets has grown tenfold in the past 30 years, and CSAs now supply about two percent of Maine families. While this growth in direct producer-to-consumer marketing it exciting, there is a nearly untapped marketing opportunity at the wholesale, retail, and institutional level of sales. Through your actions with the Farm Bill as I have outlined above, you can give this stage of marketing the jumpstart it needs. This larger scale represents the bulk volume of food sales, and it is in this area that the next generation of farmers is working to make inroads. With your help, small changes can truly make big differences on the ground.
Thank you. I would be happy to answer questions.
|| Food Safety Legislation Updates
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Food Safety Legislation: A Chance to Focus on What’s Important
Russell Libby, Executive Director
April 30, 2009
Congress is currently considering a number of pieces of food safety legislation. In the House, HR 759, The Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009, is likely to be the key starting point.
After a long stretch where FDA simply has not had the resources to keep up with changes in an increasingly complex and global food system, these bills are trying to establish new standards. However, the bills run the risk of making it harder for farmers and small food processors to supply their customers, thus making the food system as a whole more concentrated. In particular, the growing “local food” and “identity-preserved” markets could face major entry barriers or regulatory costs.
A few overarching principles:
Food safety is a shared responsibility. Whether the food system is a simple one-- harvest lettuce in the garden, take it to the sink, wash it, and prepare a salad—or a complex one—buy truckloads of spinach from several different farms, wash, clean and pack it, and ship it to multiple market outlets—several responsibilities are shared. Farmers need to use the best possible growing systems for producing the food. Packers and processors need to be able to trace food from the farm to the next level of the food system, and are responsible for handling food safely and properly. Distributors and retailers need sufficient records to be able to track food back to supply points. Finally, the person who prepares the meal—whether it’s at a restaurant, an institution, or a home kitchen—needs to prepare the food well. Obviously, the more complex the system is, the more steps between farmer and table, the more important the role of FDA and USDA in the process.
- Enforce existing laws first. FDA is already charged with enforcement of a wide range of food safety laws. They need the financial resources to do the job properly.
- Focus on the core problems. Most of the food safety outbreaks that reach the level of public notice are associated with national, and sometimes international, distribution systems. This is where FDA, and USDA, should focus their efforts.
- Do no harm. This principle holds as true now as it has for over 2000 years. One of our critical concerns is that the rapid adaption of food safety protocols is going to make it harder, not easier, to build strong connections between farmers and the public.
It’s not all about the microbes. Sterility is not a solution. Although the most recent large food safety outbreaks have been focused on various forms of microbial contamination, we believe that it’s important to be looking at the impacts of the whole system. In HR 759, Section 104 (b) 2 includes chemical hazards as one of the items that should be monitored in fruits and vegetables, but it’s not clear whether that specifically includes pesticide residues or where they would be addressed. Off-farm impacts of pesticides and fertilizers aren’t addressed directly by food safety standards—but a food system that produces safe food has to consider these issues.
The role of organic and identity-preserved products:
Meeting the standards of the National Organic Program means that some of the critical elements of a food safety strategy are also addressed. Included in the rule, followed by the thousands of organic farmers across the country, and also included in various forms by other groups, are elements that could be the prototype of a farmer-based food safety strategy:
Positive elements of the bills before Congress:
- There is no use of raw manure on vegetable crops without an extended waiting period between manure application and harvest of the crop.
- Compost that contains livestock manures has to meet temperature, mixing and time requirements or else the product must be treated like unprocessed manure.
- There is no routine use of antibiotics within either livestock feed or livestock health programs. (Animals may be treated to ensure health, but neither the animals nor their products may then be sold as organic.)
- There is no use of synthetic pesticides. Their use is not generally considered in food safety protocols like USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices checklist.
- Organic farmers are required to maintain records that allow “one up, one down” traceability. They have to keep records of the sources of inputs, be able to track activities on their farm to the relevant fields/livestock, and then maintain records of sales that are detailed enough to allow full accountability.
Congress has indicated a willingness to work with all parts of the food system to find good solutions. There are elements of HR 759, and other bills, which simply make common sense:
Issues that still need to be clarified within LD 759 and related bills:
- Recall authority. FDA currently relies on the manufacturer to get food that has been traced to illnesses out of the system. FDA would now have authority to stop sales and require recalls. (Subtitle B, Section 114; Subtitle C, Section 121)
- Expanded research capacity. Which foods are causing problems? Why? FDA lacks some of the basic scientific capacity needed to determine the root of the problems they are responsible for regulating. (Subtitle B, Sections 111-113)
- Enforcement capacity. Implicit in the language of HR 759 (and HR 875) is the idea that the FDA should have sufficient staff and resources to actually enforce existing laws, be able to identify problems quickly, and trace them to their source. This is, to us, the root of the problem, and the solution.
1. Who’s covered? HR 759 regulates processors, but doesn’t define the term directly. Some aspects of the bill would extend oversight to activities at farms and restaurants. HR 875’s original language set up classes of processors, with frequency of inspection linked to the class. As Congress considers language, it’s critical that the focus be on the pieces of the food system that have the most potential impact. Suggestions:
A. Establish tiers, similar to HR 875, but focus FDA effort by size:
2. SBA Small Businesses
3. SBA Very Small Businesses
B. Direct sales from farmer to final consumer exempt from FDA oversight, final consumer to include individuals and restaurants.
C. Exempt products that move from farmer to final consumer with identity preserved all the way through the system.
D. Recognize equivalent state systems (e.g., state meat inspection; state oversight of low-risk foods like jams and jellies).
2. Traceability. HR 759 would require most shipments and sales of food to be tracked electronically (Sec. 107, TRACEABILITY) including food purchased by restaurants and farmer sales UNLESS it is a raw agricultural product in a commercial shipment with information that includes the grower, lot, harvesting and packing dates. Suggestions:
A. Existing language in FDA regulations allows either paper or electronic records. Continue that language while:
1. Encouraging development of model recordkeeping system
2. Allowing equivalency (for example, Maine’s blueberry industry uses bar code systems that allow tracking of each pallet back to individual fields)
3. Focusing on one-up, one-down systems—all businesses able to document inputs and products sold from the farm
B. The exemption (above language) should be modified to simply require:
1. The grower
2. Information sufficient to allow tracing back to the field/farm of origin.
C. Expand exemption to include any other products that move directly from the producer to the final buyer, so long as it includes the information included in B, along with other currently-required labeling information.
3. Fees. HR 759 has an elaborate fee system designed to cover all inspection and electronic data costs at FDA. A fee sufficient to cover those costs will discourage new entrants into the business. (The proposed $10,000 fee for all importers will also be a significant barrier for small businesses that import from single or limited sources, such as some coffee importers.)
A. We believe that there should be a separation of functions here. Enforcement of existing government laws is a government function, and shouldn’t be paid for by those being regulated. Inspection and monitoring on a continuous basis to provide access to a market (as in USDA inspection) is a cost of doing business, and should be done on a fee basis.
B. Consideration of the scale of business being regulated is critical.
4. HACCP, or other certifications: See below for a discussion of the many different options for food safety oversight and compliance certification.
A. Language in HR 759 (and other bills) needs to recognize that many different food safety certification systems are already in place. This will be particularly important if the language extends to cover imports—many products from other countries will also be part of similar domestic programs.
B. MOFGA strongly opposes many elements of the Leafy Greens Agreement, embodied in HR 1332.
Food Safety Certification Protocols—a partial listing.
This is a necessarily incomplete listing of food safety protocols that are currently operating at various levels in the U.S., and elsewhere.
- HACCP. Frequently used by processors. Required under FDA protocols for seafood and for juice products. Most meat processing plants, while under USDA jurisdiction, have HACCP plans or equivalent in place.
- Good Agricultural Practices. Increasingly desired by produce buyers. Current USDA GAP standards raise major compliance issues for diversified farms. See MOFGA’s comments at: http://www.mofga.org/Default.aspx?tabid=735. GAP compliance has been required for farmers who supply ingredients to suppliers of the National School Lunch program as a result of a letter from the Director of School Lunch programs at USDA in August, 2007.
- Good Agricultural Practices—Extension version. Rhode Island’s school lunch program encourages suppliers to be compliant with the original Good Agricultural Practices guidelines developed by Extension in the early 1990’s. http://www.uri.edu/ce/ceec/food/grow.html
- GlobalGap (formerly EurepGAP)—generally required by major retailers in the European Union. To assure access to export markets, some US producers (e.g., sweet potato farmers) have received GlobalGap certification. See http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FS145 for an overview.
- Organic certification. Many of the issues of concern in HR 759 and other legislation are specifically addressed by organic certification standards, including: waiting periods for use of manure; compost and input regulations and monitoring; field histories for each unit of production; tracing inputs and outputs. MOFGA has developed an add-on protocol, based on HACCP principles, that could be used by farmers who need additional oversight to meet needs of particular markets.
- Other programs.
A quick Google search showed 170,000 links—this is only a representation of some of the possibilities already on the ground.