STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA, had a big year in 2013.
The group took a leading role in challenging proposed food safety regulations it saw as excessive and announced it would merge with a similar organization of farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“What a long slog it was,” Brian Snyder, PASA’s executive director, said in describing the campaign to alter the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act during his keynote address on Feb. 7 at the group’s Farming for the Future Conference.
He and other PASA members reviewed about 1,200 pages of draft rules, Snyder said.
“At the beginning, we were very much outnumbered and outspent,” he said.
One of their allies was Ariane Lotti, assistant policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
After studying the draft regulations last year, Snyder said he, Lotti and others realized that some of the rules would have severely hampered farmers’ ability to grow food.
Although the new law is the first major overhaul to food safety laws since the 1930s, Snyder said many farmers initially thought the regulations would not affect them, believing that their farms were exempt.
“We could have just let things collapse and thrown our hands up in the air,” said Staci Miller, of the Farmers Market Coalition, who helped analyze the draft rules during a session of the conference, “but we turned our frustrations to a more productive outlet — into words and language.”
According to Mike Tabor, the lone farmer called to testify at a Feb. 28, 2013, hearing on Capitol Hill, congressional leaders were hearing testimony primarily from victims of severe foodborne illness without much input from the agriculture community or others affected by the rules.
“I almost left the room,” Tabor said, explaining that he was intimidated by the fact that he was the only farmer on the docket.
On Nov. 15, Lotti sent a 300-page letter to respond to the draft regulations, making detailed recommendations for revising the rules.
During state meetings last year, Snyder noticed that Pennsylvania Farm Bureau also was looking at the detailed analysis done by NSAC and PASA.
United Fresh Produce, the produce industry’s leading trade association, was interested too.
Through the efforts of farmer and ag advocate Steve Warshawer, UFP leaders invited PASA to participate at their food safety council meeting on the proposed rules on Sept. 30 in Washington, D.C.
By mid-November, the FDA had received 25,000 comments about the proposed rules.
“For the first time in recent history, all of agriculture was speaking with one voice,” Snyder said. “And for the first time ever, it was the sustainable and organic farming community that was leading the charge on behalf of all farmers throughout the country.”
Through the efforts of PASA and other groups, the FDA agreed on Dec. 19 to rework the most controversial parts of the proposal.
In his address, Snyder said organic growers are threatened by the USDA’s search for “coexistence” between proponents and opponents of genetically modified organisms.
USDA requested public comment on the idea in November and recently extended the comment deadline to March 4.
“On the face of it, the idea of coexistence’ is difficult to argue with, something we all would likely endorse with respect to disputes of all kinds, from the local to international levels,” Snyder said.
“But in this case, it’s a bit more ominous an idea, since the two sides are not equal in terms of the threat one poses to the other,” he said, citing the possibilities of conventional farmers’ pesticides killing and genetic modifications destroying the integrity of organic crops.
“How can neighboring farmers get along when one of them seeks to operate with nature in a lead role and the other chooses to use some of the latest technology available that is meant to manipulate nature into providing a desired result?” Snyder asked.
Calling coexistence the “ separate but equal’ moment of our sustainable food and farming movement,” Snyder said a policy of coexistence would leave organic farmers in a disadvantaged position within agriculture similar to the plight of racial minorities prior to the civil rights movement.
Offering comments to USDA could help sustainable-type farmers “turn the tide of exploitation by the corporate interests in our food system that would sooner let nature die than let her lead us to a better tomorrow,” he said.
Food and family features editor Anne Harnish contributed to this story.