Food safety at issue, local farming praised

Panel of experts stresses need for more locally grown, organic products in U.S. food supply.

By Jeff Cox, contributing writer

NEW YORK ( -- This year's legislation for the nation's $300 billion farm industry takes important steps to help local farmers but much more remains to be done, a panel of experts agreed Tuesday.

Expressing optimism and some concern, the panel assembled by the H.W. Kellogg Foundation at the end of a three-day meeting on the U.S. food system called on the government to be more aggressive in supporting locally grown organic products. The goal is healthier food when questions are being raised about the safety of the nation's food supply.

Allen Hance, coordinator of the Farm and Food Policy Project and director of the Agriculture and Food Policy Program at Northeast-Midwest Institute, said he believes the 2007 Farm Bill takes positive strides.

"I think we've really reached a tipping point in the public's understanding of the scope and relevance of the farm bill to their lives," Hance said. "There's a powerful vision emerging about the kind of food system we want and need in the future and the kinds of policies that can help us get there."

The farm bill is revised every five years and allocates billions of dollars for various programs from conservation to commodities and from crop subsidies to worker safety. The stakes are large for the nation's farmers and the roughly $305 billion worth of food and crops they produce.

The legislation is the focus of a series of hearings across the country where advocates express their hopes and needs, whether it be specialty crop protection in Virginia or disaster relief funds in Wisconsin.

Hance pointed out a "profusion" of points in the farm bill geared toward local farms, including one that provides funding to develop local food systems and others that offer training for farmers to gear their products for local markets.

Panelists at the Kellogg hearing voiced generally positive feelings about this year's proposals, though they cautioned that Americans need incentives to change their eating habits. Critics have said the farm bill doesn't go far enough to help local farms beleaguered by rising commodity prices and largely left out of the federal subsidy formulas.

Savi Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, pressed for the government to provide greater opportunities for minorities in agriculture.

"As the nation overall becomes increasingly diverse, the 2007 farm bill must break the patterns of the past and acknowledge the importance of investing in minority farmers and producers," Horne said. "We need increased transparency and accountability in all USDA agencies."

Historically, the farm bill has been criticized as heavily tilted towards factory farms and away from mom-and-pop operations in the heartland.

Advocates for family farms are pushing for an end to the subsidies that mostly benefit larger farms, and a return to policies that make sure farmers are getting fair prices according to what the marketplace dictates.

Ricardo Salvador, program director for food systems and rural development for the Kellogg foundation, called such fairness "a root American value."

And David Shamel, director for supply chain management at food-service company Aramark, said the company is working to help farmers get their products into local markets more quickly. Shamel echoed comments that farm bill priorities are shifting back to local farmers.

"It's a process that will take time," he said, "but I believe this farm bill is shaping up to be one where significant steps will be made." Top of page