Broken by Design

It is obvious to many that our food system is broken; we are living in an age of industrial agriculture that provides abundant food of poor quality, that pollutes our waters, and that offends all common notions of the humane treatment of animals.

While there is lots of talk about how bad our food system has become, scant attention is paid to how it got that way.

In Michigan, a big part of the answer is that our state agricultural agency wants it this way.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, MDARD, has been working to protect production agriculture at least since the early 1990s, using various mechanisms. Right to Farm is at the center of this storm, and although it is usually said to be a tool by which old-time farmers can continue to farm even when city-slickers move to the country, it has been a long time since that was a true story.  Right to Farm has been amended 3 times since 1981, and each time it moved further from protecting traditional farmers, and closer to protecting Concentrated Agricultural Farm Operations, or CAFOs.  As a result, some real old-time farmers in rural counties are now neighbors to lagoons filled with tens of millions of gallons of manure on any given day, all protected by Michigan’s Right to Farm Act. 

The intense concentration of animals required to create that much manure in one place requires that the animals be kept in small spaces, and that they be treated with drugs to control the spread of disease and to promote growth.  Those things result in the problem of abundant food of poor quality.  The enormous amount of manure laced with those drugs pollutes our waters, and the confinement of animals in these conditions strains all standards of common decency.  This is the state of our food system in 2014.

It would be nice to think that we are now wiser than we were 25 years ago when this all began, and that the actions that brought about this unwanted food system could not happen again.  This is unfortunately not the case. 

Not satisfied with building an industrial agricultural food system that no one wants, MDARD is now keen on weakening the food system that most of us do want – one that includes food grown locally with little or no drugs, environmental damage, or animal cruelty.  It turns out that some small farmers realized that our Right to Farm law protects not only traditional farmers, as originally intended, and large industrialized agricultural operations, as almost no one intended.  Because Michigan’s Right to Farm Act does not distinguish farm operations in any way based on size or place, it also protects small operations in rural and urban areas, so long as the requirements of the Act are met.  And since those requirements were written by farmers for farmers they are easy to meet:  you just have to have a farm that sells a farm product and that meets the Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, or GAAMPs, to ensure that farmers who earn Right to Farm protection are meeting some minimal standard of good practice.

Unfortunately, the legal right of small farmers to meet Right to Farm criteria and win Right to Farm protection is not considered to be good for agriculture in Michigan by our state agricultural agency.  Tomorrow, on March 20th, the five members of the Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development will vote on whether to approve changes to the proposed 2014 Site Selection GAAMPs that will do two things:  the proposed changes will make it easier for operations with as many as 500 animal units – the equivalent of 50,000 chickens – to meet Right to Farm requirements in some areas of the state, and will simultaneously make it impossible for operations with as few as 1 animal – 1 chicken – to meet Right to Farm requirements in others.

These changes go far beyond the usual efforts of our state agricultural agency to promote industrial agriculture at the expense of other valid state interests, like protection of the environment.  Instead, this current effort deprives those who are unsatisfied with the conventional, industrialized food system to opt out of that system by growing their own; this effort by MDARD doesn’t pit farmer against rancher, or agriculture against the environment.  No, this is an especially ugly case that pits farmer against farmer, and our state agricultural agency has decided that in this battle, small farms will have to go.  

This must make a lot of sense to the folks at MDARD who have worked for decades to promote industrialized food production in Michigan, because they remain intransigent and unmoved by the hundreds of small farmers who have written in opposition to the proposed changes, and despite arguments that the agency does not have the authority to require local control over farming when the law specifically prohibits it.  And so MDARD persists in their latest effort to protect the industrialized model of agriculture in Michigan against all other interests, including the interests of other farmers.

The problem with the plan is that many Michigan citizens have already concluded that the industrialized food system is intolerable for themselves and their families, and that their only reasonable option is to grow their own and to sell the excess.  So even if the five members of the Commission of Agriculture approve the proposed changes to the Site Selection GAAMPs tomorrow, this battle will not be over.  It can't be, because there is too much at stake, and because the options left to people who care about what they eat will be too small if the proposed changes are approved.


Copyright 2012-2014     Wendy Lockwood Banka     All Rights Reserved