Here and there around the United States, groups of activists are taking their country back from a tyrannical government and declaring their independence in a critical area of their lives. It’s not the Tea Party, and it’s hardly an Arab Spring, but it could be significant if it takes hold. Three towns in New England and one city in California have acted to pry the government’s cold, dead hands off their food supply. The New England towns have passed what they call a “food freedom” ordinance; and San Francisco had decriminalized urban farming.
Here’s the problem. If you ask Joel Salatin, America’s premier practitioner and advocate of sustainable agriculture, why he doesn’t get organic certification from the USDA for his products, he snorts that he would not lower his standards to that extent. The boondoggle the USDA created when it decided to regulate organic farming remains an historic low point in the history of governance. And it illustrates an immutable law: when government tries to do good (to completely misappropriate a thought of Buckminster Fuller), what government touches, government kills.
In one of Salatin’s books, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal (learn more about his ideas and his Polyface Farm here), he discusses at length “the demonizing and criminalizing of virtually all indigenous and heritage-based food practices. From zoning to labor to food safety to insurance, local food systems daily face a phalanx of regulatory hurdles designed and implemented to police industrial food models but which prejudicially wipe out the antidote: appropriate scaled local food systems.”
The national regulation of our food supply is a sick joke, with emphasis on sick. Industry money applied to its wholly-owned politicians has ensured that most regulations have no teeth, and that those that do have no money allocated for inspection or enforcement. But that’s only for the big guys. Individual farmers who sell milk, beef or pork to their neighbors will soon feel the full weight of the government, acting on behalf of people who have been convinced by industry PR that government-inspected (USDA prime!) industrial food is safe, clean and healthy while stuff that comes from a farm is filthy.
In one of her presentations, Sharon Astyk tells a story about visiting an urban farmers’ market and then going to a restaurant a few blocks away. A waiter told her that no spinach was available; it had been recalled because of salmonella contamination. Sharon informed the waiter that plenty of fresh spinach was available a few blocks away at the farmers’ market. The reaction was horror at the idea of buying produce directly from a farmer. How, the waiter wanted to know, would we know it’s clean?
Contrary to the waiter’s mindset, government regulation (a functional oxymoron) has given the country an industrial-food stream that is almost always contaminated with toxic chemicals and infectious micro-organisms. Food from small sustainable farms, on the other hand, is virtually without exception more nutritious, cleaner and safer — for the simple reason that it is the industrial practices themselves that inevitably introduce the toxins and bugs. But government regulation, somehow effective in this respect, makes it a crime to sell many farm products directly to food eaters.
In reaction to this idiocy, three towns in Maine and one in Vermont have enacted or are considering food freedom ordinances exempting all direct sales of food from having to comply with state and federal license and inspection requirements. While these transparently non-legal gestures (especially if they start to spread) will no doubt be squashed like beneficial bugs by state and federal government overlords urged on by their threatened corporate masters, they nevertheless signal a rising awareness of the corruption of our food supply and the attractiveness of a readily available alternative.
Similarly, people who live in the suburbs and realize that suburban dirt will grow food just as well as rural dirt, find themselves under the tyranny of government (not to mention the dreaded homeowners’ association). Most urban governments actually require the perpetuation of the single most destructive land use in history — the lawn — and react in horror to any practical use of yards.
But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors actually has officially recognized the validity of urban farming, with an amendment to the zoning laws allowing people to cultivate and sell produce and some prepared foods from their yards and kitchens without having to get a costly ($3,000 plus) conditional-use permit. Oakland, California, recently adopted a similar measure.
Hardly an Arab Spring, or even a Wisconsin public-employees rally, and far from a Tea Party organized to deny health insurance to the poor and reduce taxes on the wealthy. But still. When you see a few daffodils peek through the snow, how can you deny the hope of a new season?