Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Your Food, Your Legislature: Opening Salvos

This blog is about my ongoing journey to discover the connections between what's going on in the field and what I put on my table. It took me awhile to realize part of that road makes a detour through the halls of the Capitol building in Salem. In other words, the decisions that our elected officials make about agriculture in Oregon directly affect what I'm going to feed my family, whether I buy it at the farmers' market or the grocery store.

With the opening of the 2015 regular session of the state legislature, I thought it might be helpful to sit down with Ivan Maluski, the Director of Friends of Family Farmers, an organization working to promote and protect socially responsible agriculture in Oregon, and get the bullet points on what's he's paying attention to this session.

Senate Bill 207: Authorizes the Oregon Department of Agriculture to establish control areas to allow for the regulation of genetically engineered crops to prevent conflicts with growers of non-GMO crops.

The ability of communities to make decisions about their local food systems as well as assuring farmers that the integrity of their crops is protected is at the center of this bill. The federal system for regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is an "outdated patchwork" according to Maluski, who said that protecting non-GMO crops is a hot topic nationally. He added that no other state has taken a leadership position on this issue, and doing so would put Oregon at the forefront of the debate.

The bill basically gives the ODA the authority to establish legally binding isolation distances between GMO and non-GMO crops, necessary because pollen and seed from GMO crops can potentially contaminate fields of non-GMO crops. It's clear that Oregon industries like organic farms, organic seed producers and conventional vegetable growers can be potentially devastated by contamination from GMO crops.

For instance, last November the Salem Statesman Journal reported that Monsanto Co. reached a $2.4 million settlement with Pacific Northwest wheat farmers who sued after unapproved genetically modified wheat was discovered growing in Eastern Oregon. According to the article, the discovery of the wheat had prompted Japan and South Korea to temporarily suspend some wheat orders, a disastrous situation in any industry.

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House Bill 2598: Prohibits the use of medically important antibiotics on healthy food-producing animals for non-therapeutic purposes such as growth promotion and disease prevention. Requires documentation of reporting of antibiotic use in large concentrated animal feeding operations in Oregon.

Simply put, this bill says that large factory farms will only be able to use antibiotics on sick animals. Currently, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) routinely use antibiotics on healthy animals to promote faster growth and for disease prevention (rather than treatment when an animal is actually sick). OSPIRG is currently taking the lead in this effort, positioning it as an important public health issue, since overuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals—meat animals in particular—is causing existing antibiotics used to combat human illness to lose their effectiveness. A prominent example of this was the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella traced to Foster Farms chicken that sickened hundreds across the country in 2014.

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Senate Bill 204: Establishes a new Working Forests and Farms Advisory Program to provide low interest loans, loan guarantees and grants to help maintain or restore conservation benefits on working forests and farms.

In essence this bill would provide loans, loan guarantees and grants to keep existing farmland in production and encourage farmers to pass their land on to a new generation of farmers rather than convert farmland to non-farm uses. Considering the average age of a farmer in Oregon is 58, it's critical for the continuation of our local food supply to keep farmland in production and provide avenues for new farmers to get onto the land.

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Other issues that may come up this session are:
  • Establishing pilot projects to give Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) recipients regular access and incentives to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Creating incentive areas and reducing roadblocks to the development of urban agriculture enterprise zones on underutilized city lots.
  • Promoting agritourism through liability protections for farmers who want to offer public access to their property.
  • Allowing farms to advertise raw milk sold on their farms. Currently farms are not even allowed to put that information on their websites.

Click here for more information on the bills that are coming up before the Legislature this session. Find your legislators and let them know what you think. And stay tuned for further updates as the 2015 session progresses!

Read the other posts in this series, The Good, The Bad and the UglyThe Personal Gets Political , The Fight Takes Shape and Hanging in the Balance.

Photos of Oregon Capitol building and CAFO from Wikipedia.

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