Full list: Agriculture in the News

Forbes: FDA Backs Down In Fight Over Aged Cheese

Greg McNeal
4
Full Article

The FDA is backing away (at least temporarily) from a policy statement that declared cheese makers would no longer be able to age their cheese on wooden boards. The statement caused outrage in the artisan cheese community and consumers quickly came to the aid of the industry signing onto a petition and expressing their outrage through social media. The American Cheese Society released a position statement, and it was clear that the industry was prepared to fight back if the FDA did not change its position.

Today, the FDA claimed that it in fact had not issued a new policy, they stated:

“The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

In the interest of public health, the FDA’s current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be “adequately cleanable” and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.

The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

Good for the FDA for backing down. Although it’s unfortunate that they are dodging accountability by claiming they did not change their policy. The American Cheese Society released a .PDF version of the statement by FDA’s Branch Chief Monica Metz, the chief official responsible for food safety issues involving cheese. In that document she stated

The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP requirements, which require that “all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.” 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products.

So let’s consider this a clarification, of their earlier clarification, which improperly characterized their official policy. Either way it’s good news.

This is also a lesson for people in other regulated industries. When government officials make pronouncements that don’t seem grounded in law or policy, and threaten your livelihood with an enforcement action, you must organize and fight back. While specialized industries may think that nobody cares, the fight over aged cheese proves that people’s voices can be heard.

While this is clearly a victory for the cheese industry, nothing is stopping the FDA from promulgating new regulations, so cheese makers will need to stay pay attention to what the FDA does next. FDA spokesperson Lauren Sucher signaled as much when she stated the agency would “engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.” That sounds like the FDA is planning to make some new regulations, and the engagement will likely come through the notice and comment rule-making process I described here.


New York Times: F.D.A. Rule May Alter Cheese-Aging Process

By STEPHANIE STROM and KIM SEVERSON
June 10, 2014
Full Article

A decision by the Food and Drug Administration to question the use of wooden planks to age some cheeses has produced a stink that rivals Limburger, prompting an uproar among the artisanal cheese makers and consumers who fear they might lose access to products like obscure blue cheeses from Vermont and imported Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The agency recently interpreted a decades-old regulation requiring that cheese-making equipment be designed and constructed of material that is “adequately cleanable” in ways that made it appear that wood, which has been used for centuries to help age cheese, was no longer sanitary enough.

“The porous nature of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood,” Monica Metz, chief of the dairy and egg branch of the Office of Food Safety, wrote in a letter to the New York State Agriculture Department at the beginning of this year.

For some styles of cheese, wood is an essential part of the process. It aids in the control of moisture that helps form rinds on big wheels of English Cheddar and small, delicate washed-rind cheeses. It also provides an amenable surface for the microbes that add flavor and character to cheese.

But the wrong bacteria can sicken consumers, which is what the F.D.A. was trying to control with its initial decision.

Cheese makers from California to Vermont took to social media in the last few days to express outrage. The hashtag #saveourcheese surfaced on Twitter. Chefs and cheese lovers took to Facebook and blogs to rebut the notion that wood was harmful.

Tuesday evening, the agency seemed to backtrack, saying that it planned to work with artisanal cheese makers “to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving.”

To take away wood as part of the cheese-making process would mean wholesale change for more than a third of the cheese makers in America and could have implications for imported cheese, about half of which is aged on wood, said Nora Weiser, the executive director of the American Cheese Society, an organization that represents the nation’s farmstead and artisanal cheese makers.

In Wisconsin alone, more than 33 million pounds of cheese — of the 2.7 billion pounds produced in the state — is sitting on wooden shelving, she said.

“Wood is a perfectly safe surface,” she said.

The F.D.A., however, says wood could be a potentially hazardous surface, and recently cracked down on one small cheese maker in New York, which prompted state officials to seek clarification from the agency.

The issue began during an F.D.A. inspection in 2012, when the Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Company in Trumansburg, N.Y., was barred from making cheese after Listeria monocytogenes, a type of bacteria that can cause fatal illnesses, was found on one of the wooden boards on which cheese was aged, as well as on other surfaces.

Ms. Taber Richards cleaned and disinfected her equipment and kitchen yet again, conferring with the F.D.A. about what cleaning products and processes she was using. “It was kind of like trying to hit a moving target in the dark,” she said. “I never knew explicitly what they wanted done.”

So in October 2013, she was surprised to receive a letter from the F.D.A. demanding that she agree to a consent decree stipulating that she could not receive, prepare, process, pack, hold or distribute food until she developed a program to rid her operations of listeria once and for all or face a lawsuit.

“I thought I had been cooperative and responsive,” she said. “But when I called, they said, ‘You didn’t get rid of your wooden aging shelves.’ Well, no one had ever told me I needed to get rid of them.”

State regulators then wanted to know whether that prohibition on wood applied to all cheese makers, and in January, Ms. Metz sent them her interpretation of the federal regulation requiring equipment that was “adequately cleanable.”

She did not definitively state that wood could not be used to process cheese, however, and cheese makers in New York continued to fume.

“Were they going to enforce a ban on wood in New York but not Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania but not France?” said Robert Ralyea, a senior extension associate in the department of food science at Cornell University and a cheese maker himself. “All we knew was that a ban was enforced on Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese.”

So on Thursday, Mr. Ralyea started an email blast “to a relatively large crowd,” which lit up social media and the blogosphere.

Vince Razionale of Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt., where a series of aging caves are lined with wooden shelving that hold prizewinning cheeses, said, “We’re feeling really nervous about this whole situation. Like a lot of other cheese makers, we’re feeling very exposed.”

Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, now plans to attach an amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill moving through Congress that would prohibit the F.D.A. from spending any money to enforce a ban on the use of wooden shelves in cheese making. He said he expected widespread support from lawmakers in Wisconsin, New York and other states with large cheese production.

“The F.D.A. is mixing up the hygienic practices of a producer with the materials being used in production,” Mr. Welch said. “If you have an unhygienic operation in the production of food, probably everything is going to be infected, so is the F.D.A. going to ban the use of stainless steel when it finds listeria on it?”

He said the issue was creating a tremendous amount of financial uncertainty among cheese makers, noting that Jasper Hill would have to spend about $20 million to replace the wooden shelving it uses for aging.

He said a ban on wood also would affect the taste of cheeses that rely on it for aging and kick off an international trade war. “Many European cheeses are aged on wood, so if the F.D.A. enforces this rule, it will mean those cheeses cannot be imported into the United States and that will surely lead to retaliation,” Mr. Welch said.

The statement issued by the F.D.A. on Tuesday noted that the ban was not a new policy because the regulation on “adequately cleanable” utensils and surfaces dated back to 1986. “Historically, the F.D.A. has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings,” the agency said, adding that it was “always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.”

Mr. Welch snorted when the statement was read to him. “They should be able to give a definitive point of view one way or the other rather than creating more ambiguity and uncertainty with their wishy-washy statement,” he said.


In These Times: Dairy Work Has Soured for Vermont’s Migrant Workers

6/3/14
By Jonathan Leavitt
Full Article

On the Ferrisburgh, Vermont dairy farm where he was responsible for breeding and milking the cows, Victor Diaz used to spend every night curled up in a broken-down camper beside a barn. During the two years of enduring rainwater dripping down on him and other migrant workers who shared the quarters, Diaz, who was born in Chiapas, Mexico, says he continuously asked his boss for better accommodations.

“With a couple of coworkers, we got together and we fought for something better,” Diaz recounts now. “We got a trailer.”

Unfortunately, he says, the new trailer was hardly an improvement: Sewage flowed out of the faucet, shower and washing machine. Still, according to Diaz, the farmer, Ray Brands, described it as a “mansion.”

“The sewage, the smell—I can’t put up with it any more,” Diaz says he told his boss. Rather than negotiate a solution, however, Diaz says that Brands“started insulting us in a number of ways. And he threatened us by saying there’s 50 workers behind you and they’ll take your jobs.”

According to Diaz, “that was nothing more than a lie and an empty threat. So I said to him, ‘Look, I’m going to get organized with Migrant Justice.’”

And organize, he did. On May 16, Diaz marched with a delegation of eight Migrant Justice farmworkers and 12 allies on Brands’ farm, carrying signs reading “Milk with Dignity” and chanting “Patron! Escucha! Estamos En La Lucha” (“Boss! Listen! We’re engaged in struggle!”)

The May 16 action was the latest example of the growing migrant worker movement on dairy farms throughout Vermont. In addition to subpar housing conditions such as the ones Diaz was protesting, farmworkers frequently face wage theft, unfair police profiling and shoddy healthcare. To combat these attacks on fundamental rights, farmworkers across Addison and Franklin County have begun organizing with Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based farmworker rights organization.

According to Migrant Justice, between 1,200 and 1,500 migrant farmworkers, more than one-third of whom are from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, work 60 to 80 hours a week on Vermont’s 995 dairy farms. Over the last decade, the corporate consolidation of the state’s dairies has created a perverse financial incentive for struggling farmers to extract as much labor from migrant workers as cheaply as possible. For example, Dean Foods, one of the world’s largest milk corporations, paid $30 million in 2011 to settle an anti-trust lawsuit, in which it “and the two milk cooperatives conspired to create a closed market that kept milk prices artificially low.”

Exacerbating this situation, current immigration law means that migrant workers—many of whom are undocumented—are frequently excluded from many state and federal labor protections. According to former farmworker-turned-organizer Abel Luna, “We need to make sure the Department of Labor ensures people who are milking the cows and responsible for a lot of dairy products have the same rights as everyone in other industries.” A Migrant Justice survey found that 60 percent of Vermont’s migrant farmworkers are paid less than Vermont’s minimum wage; nearly 20 percent of them had their first week’s wages illegally withheld as a “deposit.”

This was the case with Diaz: The day before the demonstration, he quit his job out of protest at the conditions. However, he says, Brands refused to return his paycheck to him.

At the demonstration, Brands’ son initially said there would be no back pay. The farmworkers kept a vigil for twenty minutes until the Patron himself appeared in his tan pickup.

After asking for a two-week notice to return the deposit, Brands eventually caved: He wrote checks for nearly all of the back wages Diaz and and his fellow farmworkers, Alfredo Aguilar Morales and Eugenio de la Cruz, said they were owed. The three have since filed a housing complaint with the Vermont Department of Health.

May 16’s victory has inspired Diaz to continue working with Migrant Justice. He intends to help build out their Milk with Dignity campaign to ensure dignified work conditions for all of the farmworkers whose invisible labor enriches corporations such as Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Cheese.

“We are in a struggle and together we are strong,” said Diaz, “I’ve seen many in our community, just because we are migrants, enduring mistreatment and abuse by the bosses.”

As fast-food strikers and Walmart workers have demonstrated in recent months, industry-wide organizing and community solidarity is essential for building a viable 21st-century labor movement. Migrant Justice has already used these techniques in its “farmworker assemblies,” which have helped win excluded migrant workers new rights, including bias-free policing policy, inclusion in the state’s single-payer healthcare system and driver’s licenses for all Vermont residents regardless of documentation. But the fight is far from over, as Victor Diaz knows well.

“There are days of winds, days of fury, and days of tears,” he says about the struggle, “But also there exists days of love that give us the courage to continue on.”


Rolling Stone: The Other Cannabis War: The Battle Over Hemp

How a 20-year campaign to distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana scored an epic victory
By Coco McPhersonJune 3, 2014
Full Article

In the annals of strange bedfellow politics, the story of how, in 2014, industrial hemp emerged from Drug War purgatory is an epic one. But even for long-time hemp advocates, the sight of Rep. Thomas Massie, a conservative Republican from northern Kentucky, biting jubilantly into a hemp bar on live TV last month was startling.

Buried in February’s $956 billion farm bill is an amendment, co-sponsored by Rep. Massie, that legally distinguishes industrial hemp from marijuana after decades of conflation. It defines hemp as an agricultural crop rather than a drug — and effectively frees American farmers to grow it for the first time in almost 60 years.

Widespread cultivation won’t happen overnight – for one thing, the U.S. has no hemp seeds or hemp-processing facilities. But the sudden change in hemp’s fortunes shocks its supporters. “If you’d asked me five years ago if I thought we could get Mitch McConnell to introduce a hemp bill, I’d have told you it was impossible,” says Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, the advocacy group formed in 2000 to educate and lobby for hemp legalization in state legislatures and on the Hill. “This is huge.”

It’s also been a long time coming. For 20 years, legislators, farmers, hippies, activists, agency heads and agronomists have worked to recast hemp as a game-changer, an American cash crop that could jump-start the country’s next economic revival. Kentucky took the legislative lead with outright advocacy by its agriculture department. Unlike a high-profile 2007 lawsuit in which two North Dakota hemp farmers took on the DEA without support from their elected officials in Washington, Kentucky brought its entire federal (and much of its state) delegation to the party.

Among hemp’s biggest advocates are Kentucky’s Republican senator, Rand Paul, the avowed champion of limited government who tweets about the tragedy of the drug war, and James Comer, the state’s young Republican agriculture commissioner who successfully sued the DEA last month for seizing Kentucky’s imported hemp seeds and for interfering with the implementation of pilot programs made legal by the farm bill. And Massie, a fiscal hawk active in last year’s government shutdown who once studied robotics at MIT.

Colorado, Vermont and Kentucky wasted no time launching their industrial hemp research and the pilot programs provided for in the farm bill. In an obscure notice dated April 16th, the USDA alerted state and county officials that farmers in states that ok’d hemp production (15 so far) could now include hemp acreage in their crop reports. The floodgates have opened.

From California and representing the activist left: David Bronner, president of his family’s Magic Soap empire. Bronner has thrown the weight of probably the most iconic hippie brand in the world behind hemp legalization and GMO-labeling initiatives.  In 2012, Bronner locked himself in a cage with a thatch of hemp plants in clear view of the White House; he was preparing a hemp oil sandwich when he was sawed out of his prison by the D.C. fire department and hauled away by police.

Explaining industrial hemp has taken decades. A lot of people don’t know what it is and many think it’s pot. “It’s just been incredibly frustrating for the hemp industry that hemp has been lumped legally and in public perception with marijuana,” Bronner tells Rolling Stone.

Hemp isn’t weed and hemp can’t get you high—it’s a bust as a recreational drug. Hemp is marijuana’s non-psychoactive sibling, derived, like weed, from the cannabis sativa plant. The current American hemp market is estimated at nearly half a billion dollars, with hemp’s oil, seed and fiber used in food, carbon-negative building materials, and automobile composites that are already inside millions of cars. Hemp cultivation is also as old as the country itself. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it, hemp was once legal tender, and several drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper. During WWII, American farmers were paid to grow it, cultivating more than 150 million pounds of industrial hemp to support the American war effort. The U.S. government’s 1942 propaganda film, Hemp for Victory, depicts workers toiling happily to harvest lush fields of hemp; the fibrous plants to be later converted to materiel like rope and parachute webbing for the military.

Despite its patriotic bona fides, cannabis sativa was a victim of reefer madness in almost every decade of the 20th Century. Praised, taxed, vilified, confused with pot and blamed for killing sprees and the theft of American jobs by immigrants. The final nail in hemp’s coffin was its classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic in 1970’s Controlled Substances Act.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a commercial hemp industry. All the hemp sold in the U.S., including the food and body products lining the shelves of Costco, the Body Shop and Whole Foods is imported. As Americans buy hemp, Britain, China, France and Germany are among the countries benefiting from America’s incoherent drug policy. Last year, Canadian farmers grew 67,000 acres of  hemp and say they may not be able to grow enough to fill this year’s orders. David Bronner began adding hemp oil — imported from Canada — to his liquid soaps in 1999. “I thought this was the most ridiculous piece of the drug war,” he says “that a non-drug agricultural crop was caught up here.”

Even as hemp fought to differentiate itself from pot, it  undeniably benefited from its association with it, successfully riding the wave of marijuana legalization in states throughout the country. And as hemp lobbyists worked to change cannabis laws, high-profile court cases highlighted the confusing and capricious application of federal drug laws to the non-drug plant.

In 2001, in a fit of drug war paranoia, the DEA declared a ban on foods that contain hemp including certain cereals, salad dressings, breads and veggie burgers — claiming that the foods contained THC. Affected businesses were given 120 days to dump their inventories. With the hemp food market just taking off, 200 hemp companies, including Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, took the DEA to court. The lawsuit allowed the hemp industry to make its case in the media. Hemp won the bruising battle nearly three years later when a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the government couldn’t regulate the trace amounts of THC that occur naturally in hemp seeds.

When the first hemp bill was introduced in Congress in 2005, it was lonely business. “At that point we had Ron Paul, a pariah in the Republican Party, recalls Steenstra. “Nobody wanted to do anything with us and we could barely get co-sponsors. We’d say hemp and they’d say ‘no, no, no, that’s pot.’ We banged on a lot of doors and worked in state legislatures to get laws changed there. A lot of states considered marijuana to be all cannabis and they didn’t distinguish. We knew we had to change minds in both places.” It wasn’t until 2012 that the first hemp bill was introduced in the Senate, when Oregon’s liberal senator, Ron Wyden, took to the floor to call federal hemp prohibition “the poster child for dumb regulation.”

What worked was the lure of jobs and economic development. When Comer, a family farmer who served six terms in the Kentucky state legislature, ran for agriculture commissioner in 2011, campaigning on industrial hemp was a no-brainer. Kentucky was once the heartland of hemp production in the U.S. and people came out of the woodwork to talk to Comer about it. “And it was all over the spectrum,” Comer tells Rolling Stone. “Liberals liked it because they were environmentalists and conservatives in the Tea Party liked it because it was an example of government overreach. Older voters were overwhelmingly for hemp because they remembered when their families grew it. They didn’t know you could make automobile parts from it because at the time, all you made with hemp in Kentucky was rope.”

On Capitol Hill last Thursday, Rep. Massie and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) each introduced amendments that would prevent the DEA and Justice Dept. from spending any money to interfere with states who are implementing their hemp laws. In the last 50 years there has only been one hemp vote in the House and that was last year. Suddenly there’ve been two more.

Without seeds, how long will it take to make hemp just another American crop like soybeans? “There’s definitely a process we have to get through,” says Bronner. “We’ve given the Canadians and the Europeans and the Chinese a huge head start on the modern global awareness of hemp. They’ve had years of breeding programs to optimize their cultivars for their climate conditions and we’ve been doing nothing.”

Canadian agronomist Anndrea Hermann says finding the right hemp varieties for the U.S. is crucial. “I would never tell a farmer anywhere, ‘let’s start mass cultivation next year,’” Hermann tells Rolling Stone. Hermann lives in a country with a fully-regulated hemp industry. “And we have to have the farmers’ voice. If we don’t have farmers, we don’t have agriculture.”

In Kentucky, farming programs for veterans that teach families how to grow their own food have just sewn hemp in collaboration with the agriculture department and Vote Hemp. Mike Lewis, a military veteran and food security expert who founded the group in 2012 when his brother returned from the war in Afghanistan with a brain injury, now has grant money for a hemp textile project and part-time work for twelve people. This in a state with a 19% poverty rate. “Appalachia has a strong history of textiles,” Lewis observes. “In my vision that’s what’s missing from rural communities, ag income. People used to survive off tobacco. If it has to be hemp for textiles, let’s do it. People call hemp a panacea, a pipe dream, but look how many people came together from all walks of life in Kentucky to make this happen.”


Merced Sun-Star: Vermont plans to inspect small farms for pollution

By LISA RATHKE
Associated Press
May 24, 2014
Full Article

Read more here: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2014/05/24/3663227/vermont-plans-to-inspect-small.html#storylink=cpy

— As Vermont works to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution that ends up in Lake Champlain, the state wants to make sure small farms are doing their part, too.

A newly hired inspector is collecting data about small, mostly dairy farms in Franklin County, where toxic algae blooms have turned up in Missisquoi Bay, and plans to visit some of them this summer to suggest how they can reduce pollution in waterways and point them to technical and financial help to solve any problems.

“I think it’s important for agencies like ours to demonstrate that, yes, there is scrutiny, but there is also assistance and education,” said John Roberts, a former dairy farmer who will do the inspections. “Many of the solutions to this problem are not massive construction of storage or systems or something like that, but they’re more management changes.”

Some of those solutions could include changing where farmers store their manure or planting cover crops in the fall to keep nutrients and soil in place. He’s already noticed some problems on his visits to more than 100 farms in Franklin County since January.

Moving frozen manure was a challenge for some farmers during the long winter and showed some areas that need improvement, he said. Sometimes it gets so cold — and the snow so deep — that farmers can’t get their tractors out to move the manure and it ends up stacked in the wrong places, Roberts said.

Roberts has been visiting farms collecting basic information to create a database and get the word out that farmers are required to comply with the state’s accepted agricultural practices aimed at conserving natural resources and reducing pollution through improved farming techniques.

Medium-sized farms with 200 or more animals or large farms with 700 or more animals are required to get a water quality permit, but the oversight and supervision of small farmers has mostly been driven by complaints, Roberts said.

As Vermont comes up with a plan to meet a revised cap on the maximum amount of phosphorus allowed in Lake Champlain, as required by federal law, a group of farmers and technical service providers has been working on recommendations to address water quality problems at farms.

“One of the things that came up amongst all these different farmers was a level-playing field because right now, small farms are regulated differently than medium and large farms are,” said Laura DiPietro, the agricultural water quality policy and operations manager for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

During his visits, Roberts informs farmers that he’ll return to do an inspection and to discuss his observations. He will then write a report and ask the farmer to respond within 30 days with a plan for fixing any problems. Any farmer who doesn’t comply could face fines, but “there are quite a few hurdles that have to be crossed before then,” he said.

Ralph McNall, president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery Inc., which includes 500 farms, says he has no problem with the inspections as long as the inspector is reasonable and doesn’t ask the farmers to do something unaffordable.

Read more here: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2014/05/24/3663227/vermont-plans-to-inspect-small.html#storylink=cpy

WHAS11: DEA backs down; releasing hemp seeds to Ky. Agriculture Dept.

by Joe Arnold
May 13, 2014
Full Article & Video

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – There has been an apparent breakthrough in the battle over industrial hemp seeds seized by customs agents in Louisville.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Drug Enforcement Administration has decided to back down and release the seeds for a hemp pilot project.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer planned to take the DEA to federal court Wednesday to force it to follow a new federal law.

According to Comer, the DEA wanted to attach various conditions before it would even consider handing over the industrial hemp seeds.

Now the two sides have agreed on one condition.

“The first phone call – it was just an utter disregard for federal legislation, the Farm Bill,” Comer said.

By the last phone call between the DEA and the Kentucky Agriculture Department on Tuesday, the two sides appear to have reached an agreement that by the end f the week it will release to agriculture officials a 250-pound shipment of hemp seeds being held by customs agents.

An agriculture department official says the DEA will only require the Agriculture Department to apply for an import permit, a process the DEA pledges to expedite so that the seeds can be released by the end of the week.

“The farm bull clearly states that we have the authority in Kentucky because we passed state regulatory framework, to be able to conduct pilot projects with research universities like the University of Kentucky,” Comer said.

It appears to be a better resolution than in 1996, when actor Woody Harrelson was arrested in rural Kentucky for ceremoniously planting four hemp seeds.

This Friday, Comer plans to join hemp supporters in rural Kentucky again to plant hemp seeds to usher in the rebirth of a cash crop outlawed here since 1937 because it looked similar to marijuana.

 


Grist: Oregon county bans GMO crops

By Nathanael Johnson
May 21, 2014
Full Article

Voters in Jackson County, Oregon, passed a measure Tuesday prohibiting farmers from growing genetically engineered plants. Farmers had spearheaded the initiative, according to the Associated Press:

The effort to ban GMOs in Jackson County started two years ago when organic farmers learned the Swiss company Syngenta was growing sugar beet seed in local fields that was genetically altered to resist the popular weed killer Roundup. They wanted to protect their crops from being cross-pollinated by genetically modified ones.

Though seed companies spent nearly $1 million campaigning against it, the measure passed by a 2-to-1 margin. The Earth Island Journal has some on-the-ground color from farmers explaining why they pushed for the ban:

“If we saved our own seed like we want to, then we would be growing GMO beets and chard. It would be contaminated with that pollen,” said [Elise] Higley, who also serves as director of Our Family Farms Coalition, the primary group supporting measure 15-119. “It’s a real economic risk for farmers having those GMO crops so close by.”

On the other hand, the Oregonian points out that the defense of property rights cuts both ways:

“Fundamentally, growers can choose what crops they grow,” said Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, which opposes the Jackson County measure. “This would really be the first example where one set of growers — those who don’t like GM crops — are going to tell all growers that they can and can’t grow certain crops in Jackson County.

A similar measure is expected to pass in Josephine County, just to the east. But the situation there is slightly different. That’s because last year Oregon passed a law that prevents local governments from regulating genetically engineered crops.

Jackson County is exempt from this law because its measure was already pending. Not so in Josephine County. If the measure becomes law there, it will almost certainly be challenged in the courts.


WCSH: Food sovereignty fight taken to Maine’s highest court

By Tim Goff
May 13, 2014
Full Article and Video

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — A fight over local control and food sovereignty that began in the fields of Blue Hill more than two and a half years ago, spilled over into the state’s highest court on Tuesday.

Justices with the Maine Judicial Supreme Court heard arguments from lawyers representing Dan Brown, a small farmer fighting against sanctions imposed by the Maine Department of Agriculture that stem from his sale of raw milk on his farm without a license.

“I can’t give my neighbor a half gallon of milk. This is crazy talk,” exclaimed Brown as he stood outside the Cumberland County Courthouse.

Brown says it was about ten years ago when he and his wife, Judy, decided to start a small farm operation on their land at their home in Blue Hill. They had a handful of chickens and added a couple of cows.

“I loved it. It was a way of life,” said Brown.

They were producing more milk than they could consume, so Brown says he approached the state to see if they could sell the raw, unpasteurized milk, he was told he could on his farm as long as he didn’t advertise he was doing it.

“I was following their directions,” he explained. “I asked them what can I do? Where can I sell my milk? ‘If you sell from your farm, we don’t need to know you’,” he says he was told.

For several years he says they’re weren’t any problems. His operation grew to roughly 300 chickens and eight cows. He invested money in a farm stand and started making cheese and other products along with selling vegetables. Brown says he never worked so hard in his life, or was as content working as when he was fixing things on the farm.

In 2011, an inspector with the state paid his farm a visit. Brown says he was told he needed to make numerous improvements to comply with state regulations. He estimates it would have cost between $20,000 and $60,000 to meet the requirements.

“To produce a couple gallons a day, how could you ever recoup that?” he wondered. “It is the infrastructure needed to produce the milk to fall under a commercial dairy license.”

Brown closed his doors for about a week. Other farmers in the area reached out to him and told him the laws had not changed and that he should continue operating as he had been. So he reopened and was soon sued by the state.

Dan Brown says paying for the required license was never the issue, but the amount of money he would have had to invest to build the infrastructure to fall under a commercial dairy license was beyond his capabilities and something he was not interested in doing.

“This is about more than one man, milking one cow and selling its milk to his neighbor,” stated State Representative Brian Jones, at a rally before Brown’s hearing outside the courthouse. “We support the right of communities to determine how they will manage the production and distribution of food among themselves and the rights of individuals to determine what foods they will eat.”

Jones joined Brown and roughly two dozen of Brown’s supporters on the courthouse steps before his case was heard. All of them support local food sovereignty ordinances like the one passed in Blue Hill back in 2011. The ordinances seek to protect small scale food producers from having to comply with state and federal regulations and inspections.

“I am here because I believe food raised by a community, for a community, within a community should be regulated by that community,” said Heather Rhetberg, who traveled to Portland from her farm in Penobscot to show her support for Brown.

Eleven Maine towns have passed food sovereignty ordinances in recent years in an effort to support their local economies and keep them in business supplying their friends and neighbors with food grown or made in their own backyards.

Gary Cox, a lawyer with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund traveled from Ohio to Maine to represent Brown before the Supreme Court. He says if Brown is successful in his appeal it will “be a huge victory for food sovereignty”.

The state, which imposed a fine of $1000 on Brown for selling raw milk without a license, believes state and federal statutes supersede local ordinances.

“The department really does support local food sales and these kinds of transactions between farmers and individuals,” stated Randlett. “But, again as I pointed out, it can’t be without rules.”

The Maine Judicial Supreme Court is expected to issue its findings in the coming weeks.


VT Digger: Trade group vows to sue over Vermont’s GMO labeling law

John Herrick
May. 12 2014
Full Article

The ink was barely dry on Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law when a national industry trade group declared it would seek to overturn it.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents cereal-maker General Mills, among others, said Friday it intends to sue the state to reverse the law.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said Monday the state is prepared. “We’re expecting to be sued and we’ll put the A-team on the case if and when we are sued,” Sorrell said.

Food companies, retailers and biotechnology industry trade groups oppose Vermont’s law requiring manufacturers to put a one-line label on products containing genetically modified ingredients starting in 2016. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill at an outdoor ceremony Thursday.

They say GMO crops pose no risk to human health or the environment; instead, they say the law will only increase food prices and complicate interstate commerce.

The vast majority of commodity crops grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered to ward off pests and withstand heavy herbicide applications. These products are used in the majority of the country’s processed foods.

Scientific research is inconclusive on whether GMO products are as safe for human consumption as their non-GMO counterparts. But environmentalists warn these crops can create untamable “super weeds” resistant to herbicides, forcing the agricultural industry to spray more weed-killing chemicals.

“So if as a consumer you’re concerned about the long-term health of our nation’s soils, water, flora and fauna … then that could be a decision as to why you don’t want to buy a GMO product,” Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, a longtime legislative leader on the issue, said this month.

But industry groups say GMO production is better for the environment because farmers can produce more crops with less land, water and fuel.

More than two dozen states are considering labeling laws. Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that will go into effect only when neighboring states follow suit – a strategy designed to shield individual states from bearing the cost of trailblazing a policy that is loathed by well-heeled industry groups.

And now the second-smallest state in the nation is has picked a fight with some of the world’s largest food manufacturers, including General Mills, a $31 billion company that opposes state labeling initiatives and is a member of the GMA.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell. Photo by Roger Crowley

Sorrell estimates defending the law could cost $1 million to win and $5 million or more to lose. The state is stockpiling $1.5 million through state appropriations and settlement surpluses to defend the law. The state also announced last week at a bill signing that it is taking private donations through a newly created defense-fund website, Foodfightfundvt.org.

The state anticipates a host of constitutional challenges, including free speech protections, interference with interstate commerce and conflicts with federal law.

One reason is consumer demand will force food producers to source more expensive non-GMO commodities to avoid what the group calls a perceived “warning” label.

“It’s more because of the perception that such a law sends to the consumers. It’s essentially a de facto warning,” said Karen Batra, a BIO spokeswoman, in an interview Monday.

This is a market decision food producers will have to make, despite indifference on the part of many consumers who care more about calories and prices, she said.

National polls indicate that 93 percent of respondents say foods containing genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled. A VTDigger poll shows overwhelming support for GMO labeling in Vermont. The chorus backing Vermont’s bill has been about a consumer’s “right to know” what is in their food.

It’s also unclear whether these food producers will stop selling to Vermont’s 626,000 residents altogether. Opponents of the labeling law say it may cost these companies less to exclude Vermont’s market than to comply.

“That’s just one of these scare tactics that industry folks are trying to build … against a law that is very popular,” Sorrell said of the possibility sale restrictions in Vermont.

He said attorneys general across the country are putting bipartisan support behind Vermont’s law.

“I think this issue of GE food labeling is going to be one that’s going to be enacted in other states going forward,” he said.

He said the Attorney General’s Office will have regulatory rules on the labeling law drafted as soon as late summer. This will include how the label will appear on the food packages. There will be a chance for the public to comment on the regulations, he said.


VT Digger: Shumlin signs landmark GMO labeling law

John Herrick
May. 8 2014
Full Article and Video

Vermont will be the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients. It will also likely be the first state to defend the GMO labeling law in court, state officials say.

The fight ahead did not cloud a festive bill-signing on the Statehouse steps Thursday afternoon where more than 100 pro-labeling public health advocates, lawmakers and residents cheered in support of the landmark policy.

“Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: They want to know what’s in their food,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”

The law requires food manufacturers selling in Vermont to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients starting July 1, 2016. These products can also no longer be labeled “natural” or “naturally made.”

Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has been pushing for the bill for much of his nearly two decades in the Legislature, said Vermont’s law will create a “domino effect” across the nation.

“This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.

Most commodity crops sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered to ward off pests and withstand applications of weed-killing herbicides. The majority of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients.

There is no scientific consensus whether genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. But the pro-labeling chorus in Vermont was about consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said lawmakers received letters from multinational companies threatening to challenge the state’s policy in court.

“A lot of times that scares people. But you know what? Not us,” Campbell said. “We are going to do what is right for the people of Vermont and the people of this country. And that’s to make sure that you have the right to know what is in your food.”

The biotechnology industry, which manufactures genetically engineered food products, opposes Vermont’s legislation. Industry representatives prefer a national solution instead and there have been many predictions that they will sue Vermont over the law.

The Vermont Attorney General anticipates defending the law in court, which he estimates could cost $1 million to win and $5 million or more to lose.

“The constitutionality of the GMO labeling law will undoubtedly be challenged,” Sorrell said in a statement.

“I can make no predictions or promises about how the courts will ultimately rule but I can promise that my office will mount a vigorous and zealous defense of the law that has so much support from Vermont consumers,” Sorrell said.

That’s why the bill includes a $1.5 million special fund reserved for defending the state in court. This money would be raised from state appropriations, private donations and surplus settlement proceeds. The state is taking private donations through a newly created donation website, Foodfightfundvt.org.

Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which organized a grassroots campaign backing the labeling law that gathered more than 32,000 signatures across the state.

“By passing this law with no strings attached, Vermont has sent a message out loud and clear: that no company – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful – can deny you the right to know what’s in your food,” Burns said.

Unlike other states’ GMO labeling policies that would take effect only when neighboring states pass similar policies, Vermont’s law does not have a so-called trigger.

“We aren’t waiting for anybody else … to us it’s OK to stand up and protect our citizens,” Burns said.

But opponents of the bill question whether Vermont has a large enough market to force food manufacturers to label products.

Environmentalists point out that genetically engineered crops allow for the heavy application of weed killers, and U.S. farmers this year are using more herbicides to kill off herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”

Carl Russell chairs the board for Rural Vermont, an agricultural advocacy organization supporting the policy.

“It now gives people the opportunity to not only know what goes in their food, but it also gives them a choice to support the kind of agriculture that they want to see in the state of Vermont,” Russell said.