Farming methods that have been used in America and throughout the world for centuries are in danger of essentially being banned under proposed regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Small and large organic farms alike that sell produce would be impacted by the proposed new rules, which would place burdensome restrictions on everything from compost to livestock to water – so much so that many organic farmers will be forced out of business, said Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a national organization that supports independent family farmers. The restrictions placed on compost would be so severe that it amounts to a ban. Organic farms that have livestock in close proximity to their crops also would find it difficult to clear government rules. Additionally, organic farms that use surface water would be forced to test their water regularly. All total, it could add up to many organic farms simply closing, unable to grow crops naturally or unable to afford the cost. It’s all part of the FDA’s food safety proposals that impact all farms – not just organic. But it’s the organic farms that will be hit hardest. Congress handed FDA the power in 2010 to regulate farms.
Off The Grid News recently asked McGeary to explain her concerns about the proposed regulations. Following is a transcript:
Off The Grid News: There has been a lot of conflicting data on how the FDA’s proposed food safety rules will impact organic farmers. Could you begin by telling us how it would impact their use of compost?
Judith McGeary: The proposed rules include extremely stringent restrictions on the use of what the FDA calls “biological soil amendments,” which includes compost, compost teas and manure. The regulations cover how the soil amendments can be made, their handling, storage, application and much more.
The single biggest issue is the mandatory waiting period in between application and harvesting the crops. For “untreated” amendments – which include not only manure, but also worm compost, compost teas with any additives, and any compost that doesn’t meet FDA’s specific standards – there is a 9-month waiting period. This makes these valuable soil amendments essentially unusable. Even fully treated compost would require a 45-day waiting period, limiting its usefulness.
These waiting periods are simply not needed. Organic farmers have been using both manure and compost for centuries, with excellent results. The certified organic standards have no waiting period on the use of compost, and only a 90-day to 120-day waiting period on the use of raw manure; and there have been no reported outbreaks from these practices. The FDA’s proposal would destroy one of the core tools for sustainable food production, for no good reason.
OTGN: Organic farmers have also complained about the restrictions on animals and livestock on organic farms. Could you please explain that?
McGeary: The proposed provisions about domestic livestock and wildlife are troubling in large part because they provide extreme discretion to FDA inspectors and officials, leaving farmers at the mercy of what their individual inspector thinks.
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For example, if there is a “reasonable probability” that livestock that graze in fields will contaminate covered produce, then the proposed standards require an “adequate waiting period” between grazing and harvest. The regulations do not specify a length of time that FDA considers an adequate waiting period, but some preamble language implies that it could be 9 months, the same as the waiting period between applying raw manure and harvest. This would effectively force a farmer to abandon using that section of his property for the growing season.
Similarly, if there is a reasonable probability that working animals will contaminate covered produce, then FDA requires a farmer to take “measures” to prevent the introduction of foreseeable hazards such as animal feces, but the agency does not specify what those measures are.
Combined with the proposed rule on animal-based soil amendments, this section poses significant problems particularly for diversified farms that combine produce and animal production, a key part of which is adding animal excreta to the soil. These diversified farms are efficient, both biologically and economically, yet would be hard-pressed to comply with the proposed rules; even ignoring expense, many of their methods simply could not be brought into compliance. These farms have not been shown to pose a high risk of foodborne illnesses in practice, and are being penalized based on fear-based assumptions rather than data.
OTGN: What other burdensome restrictions would it place on organic farmers?
McGeary: The proposed rule contains numerous requirements that would burden all types of small-scale producers, both organic and conventional. It covers buildings, equipment, personnel training, record-keeping and much more.
Some of the most expensive and difficult provisions relate to water, especially water that is used for irrigating crops. The proposed rule requires extensive testing if the farmer uses water that is not from a public water supply. If surface water is used, the farmer must test the water every 7 days during the growing season. For areas such as Texas and the South, the growing season can extend throughout the year, requiring 52 water tests! Since the testing must be done at an approved lab, the farmer has to either ship the sample each week or drive to the lab, which may be several hours away. The cost of such testing would be several thousand dollars per year.
If the water doesn’t meet the FDA’s standard – a standard based on recreational use, not agricultural — the farmer must “immediately discontinue” the use of a source of water. Yet FDA recognizes that it is very unlikely that any untreated surface water could meet this standard, forcing farmers to either treat the water with antimicrobial chemicals or find another source. In many cases, this requirement alone would be enough to drive farmers out of business10.
OTGN: Would the rules end up putting some organic farmers out of business, because it will make it so difficult to farm and sell products organically?
McGeary: Definitely. The rules impose very extensive costs, in both money and time, on all types of producers. The small producers will find it particularly difficult to comply, and the restrictions on biological soil amendments and livestock are simply not feasible for some organic producers. The combined effects could be devastating.
OTGN: How can organic farmers and their supporters fight back?
McGeary: Organic farmers and their consumers have already been fighting back very effectively, fortunately. In addition to submitting comments to the FDA on the proposed rule, we encouraged people to contact Congress to express their outrage, and the political pressure had a real impact – the FDA announced in December that it would reconsider these provisions and propose revised rules in the summer of 2014. The FDA’s admission that the proposed rules need significant changes is a very positive step. But it remains to be seen what the actual changes will be…and whether they will truly fix the problems. We need people to be prepared to be active again in the next round, this summer. They can stay informed about what is happening, and what they can do about it, by signing up for email alerts at FarmAndRanchFreedom.org.