Vote For a Better Food System

In 2014 a thousand or more Michigan citizens wrote to our state agricultural agency, MDARD, to ask them to stop putting regulatory impediments in the way of small farmers in Michigan - be they residential or rural – and to instead support the legal right of all Michigan citizens to grow food wherever they live.  The most common reason articulated was that our food system is broken in ways that affect the environment, animal welfare, the food that we eat and ultimately our health.  In particular, as more drugs are fed to animals to allow for their efficient production, and as more pesticides are applied to crops that were genetically altered to tolerate them, there is widespread concern that the drugs and the pesticides are also showing up on our dinner plates.

While it is common knowledge that our food system is broken it is less well understood how it got that way. In particular, few consider the extent to which policies enacted in Lansing determine the shape of agriculture in Michigan.  At the center of our state-level agricultural policy is the Right to Farm Act, which was enacted in 1981 to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits from neighbors, but which actually does much more.  In March 1991 when Bill Schuette was the Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, he stated that farmers who met Right to Farm guidelines also enjoyed exemption from air quality permit requirements, exemption from water quality permit requirements, and exemption from liability under the 1990 Polluter’s Pay Law.  From it’s earliest days, then, Right to Farm has offered extraordinary protection to farmers that extend beyond what is stated in the RTFA itself.

In 1999 the Michigan legislature amended the RTFA to additionally protect farmers who meet RTF guidelines from local regulation.  With this last piece in place, our state-level Right to Farm law came to be understood as the strongest in the nation, and cemented Right to Farm as the centerpiece of a legal and policy infrastructure that protects agriculture in Michigan from lawsuits of all kinds.  Neighbors, townships, environmental groups, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality – virtually no one is permitted to sue agricultural operations that meet RTF guidelines in Michigan, no matter the offense.  As a result, the kinds of agricultural practices that create the greatest offenses have flourished in Michigan, to the detriment of neighbors, small traditional farms, the environment, animal welfare and food quality.

Governor Snyder deserves no blame for the creation of this problem, since it was put in place well before he took office. But his administration is responsible for two important changes have taken place since he was elected in 2010.  First, under Snyder there has been an effort to further intensify production agriculture in Michigan. In 2011 his administration hosted a Summit on Production Agriculture that set a goal of doubling agricultural exports and increasing the economic impact of the food and agriculture industry from $71 to $100 billion. Not addressed were important questions around the agricultural practices required to produce that additional food, how the additional waste products will affect our environment, and whether the profits from those increased exports remain here or are enjoyed by corporate entities elsewhere.

At least as importantly, the Snyder administration has also implemented policies aimed at eliminating state-level support for small farms. First, after many court cases demonstrated that small farms in residentially-zoned areas are, like all other farms, protected by the Right to Farm Act, the Snyder administration attempted to eliminate this legal protection for small farms by making changes to a regulatory document called the GAAMPs.  This was followed by changes to the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) that now define a single chicken in a residential backyard as a “high risk”, as a mechanism to ensure that those small farms also cannot earn MAEAP verification. And, under Governor Snyder an ill-advised DNR Invasive Species Order was issued that essentially defined all pigs in Michigan as invasive species and therefore illegal, while carving out a small exception for those kinds of pigs that are typically grown on factory farms. 

These policy changes supported by Snyder show that the kind of food system we have in Michigan is not simply the sum of individual choices made by corporate agriculture and by small farmers. Instead, Michigan’s food system has been driven by choices that elected leaders have made to promote and enable industrial agriculture, while simultaneously taking action to impede the existing legal protections for small farms. The good news is that this means that in this election year it is in the hands of Michigan voters to determine whether we go further down the road of promoting industrial agriculture as the almost exclusive form of food production in Michigan, or whether we level the playing field and simply make it legal for small farmers across the state to engage in food production. 

Is there a reasonable alternative to the current agricultural policies of Governor Snyder? Well, when Mark Schauer asked to speak with the Michigan Small Farm Council, I told him that one of the best things the next Governor could do is to appoint to the Commission of Agriculture and to the Site Selection GAAMPs Committee, the kind of small farmer whose rights have been lost under the Snyder administration. Mark Schauer agreed, and made a commitment to do just that if elected.

Having representation of small urban or residential farmers on agricultural policy-making bodies in Lansing would be a significant change, and would help align Michigan’s agricultural policies with the views of the 80% of Michigan citizens who live and eat in urban and residential areas. 

But the most important point is that agricultural policy is a state-level issue. In this election and in all elections, every one of us has the option to vote for the food system that we want, by voting for a Governor and state legislators whose views of farm and food reflect our own.