Yesterday the USDA announced $52 million in support to develop local food and organic food markets, including research money to support research for organic food production. This follows an announcement made earlier in May of this year announcing an historic first of $78 million in funding for local food systems. According to the USDA’s May 2014 press release,
Vilsack [USDA Secretary of Agriculture] said that $48 million in loan guarantees for local food projects is now available through USDA ‘s Rural Development’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, and $30 million is available through competitive grants via the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program.
For decades, the USDA has been the 500 pound gorilla in US food commodities markets: grain, corn, soybeans, beef and poultry have all had substantial federal USDA market support. As a result, US commodities markets have been relatively stable, and commodities brokers, along with farmers who farm on a scale large enough to receive USDA crop insurance and other government support, have benefited–the basis for an old joke in farm communities about those who are “farming the government.” Over time, the USDA has added production controls, along with marketing and development support, for commodity farmers.
An example of USDA production controls for those producing traditional farm commodities such as wheat and soybeans? Acreage limitations, and restrictions on planting fruits and vegetables for large scale producers enrolled in any of the commodities program.
Now the USDA is turning its focus to local food markets, an area that has experienced rapid growth in the last decade without any significant support or guidance from the USDA.
What will this new support mean? Farmers markets and food hubs may receive funding–but as has occurred historically, that funding is likely to come with additional restrictions. Over time, the US commodity producers and farmers–and their markets–have become heavily regulated and “managed” by the USDA, and a similar regulatory environment can be predicted for local food and organic food.
Vilsack’s appointment as Secretary of Agriculture was intensely opposed by organizations that support organic food. At the time of his nomination, he Organic Consumers Association (OCA) published “Six Reasons why appointing Monsanto’s Buddy, Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, for USDA head would be a terrible idea.” Their opposition and the opposition of other consumer groups supporting healthy foods focused primarily on Vilsack’s strong support for biotech and genetically engineered foods.
To date, OCA has made no comment on its website about yesterday’s announcement of funding.
Many consumers have turned to local food and farmers markets because of lack of confidence in traditional food sources. If local food markets become another “managed market” under the oversight of the USDA, what will consumers do? Will the vibrant local food market continue its development under more USDA involvement?
Will consumers have more access to non-GMO and organic, locally produced food, or will the focus be primarily only on local food?
There is an important difference for those consumers who want viable choices, who want not only to know where their food comes from but also that it is produced in ways that are truly sustainable and good for the consumer and good for the environment.
Consumers should always remember that just because food is local does not inherently mean that it is produced without genetically modified seed, or that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in production.
Some local and organic food proponents are applauding the USDA support for local food systems; hopefully this new support will improve access to organic food options for consumers, but along with this historic funding comes the possibility of a new regulatory apparatus for farmer’s markets and local food hubs–not necessarily good news for consumers who want organic and sustainably-grown, healthy food.