Potential Impacts on Local Farms

Economic Impacts

The proposed food safety rules were inspired by the safety problems in the industrial food system, but as written the rules disproportionately disadvantage small family farms, thereby reducing access to local food.  The rules must not weaken the local food system in a misguided attempt to improve food safety.

  • The FDA’s own economic analysis indicates that these rules would impose untenably high costs on small and mid-sized growers, threatening the continued viability of the small diversified farms typical of the Pioneer Valley. Profit margins are already small on such farms.  The result? The FDA acknowledges that some small farms will be driven out of business, while others will have to consolidate into larger operations to remain viable.
  • The FDA estimates the rules will cost almost $13,000 per year for farms with sales of $250,001 to $500,000, and $30,566 per year for farms with sales over $500,000. This is already more than many growers in the Pioneer Valley can afford, and the analysis did not consider some types of costs that farms will incur, so the overall cost to comply with the new rules will likely be greater.
  • The rules give an unfair advantage to large, national producers, which are better equipped to absorb the high costs of complying with these rules. Increasing our reliance on the industrial food system will not improve food safety and could threaten the local food system.
  • FDA officials have indicated that even small farms said to be “exempt” from the rules will be expected to comply with them. This conflicts with the language of the Congressional act underlying these rules, which required small farms to be truly “exempt” from the rules. The FDA should clearly exempt small farms – not only from enforcement, but also from the high costs of compliance.

Inappropriate for Local Farms

While improving the safety of our food system is crucial, the rules impose some restrictive new standards that are inappropriate or impractical for farms in the Pioneer Valley, without being justified by existing science. 

  • The rules present new management challenges for organic and diversified farms in particular, giving these farms a competitive disadvantage.
    • The rules conflict with standards for organic certification by more than doubling, and in some cases tripling, the required waiting period between manure application and harvest, and imposing a new waiting period between the application of treated compost and harvest. This will curtail use of compost and manure on organic farms.
    • The new standards for manure and compost application will disrupt current farming practices on diversified farms with both livestock and crops. These farms are common in the Pioneer Valley, and such diversification contributes to the environmental and the economic sustainability of local farms.
  • The rules impose substantial new regulations on farms that handle and sell products from other producers, discouraging local farms from marketing cooperatively, even on a relatively small scale. Many farm stands, CSA farms, and farms supplying local institutions and retail markets in the Pioneer Valley handle some produce from other local farms. The intent of the rule is clearly to protect food safety when produce is aggregated on a large scale; however, as written it will discourage farmers from working together at the local level as well, and may threaten producer co-ops, food hubs, and other strategies for scaling up the local food system.
  • Several other aspects of the rules may be impractical for local farms. For example, the rules require weekly testing of irrigation water from many surface water sources. Many farms in our region use river or pond water for irrigation, often drawing from different water sources for each irrigated field. Such testing would be very costly for farms to implement in our region, and the testing may not accurately reflect risk. Research on irrigation water risks is inadequate, tests are imperfect, and contamination is most likely within 48 hours after heavy rain (when irrigation is not needed).

Environmental Impacts

The rules will have significant environmental impacts that must be weighed carefully. An environmental impact analysis must be conducted to inform these rules before they are finalized, and the final rules must incorporate the conclusions of this analysis.

  • The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 requires federal agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement for all federal actions that will significantly impact the human environment. The FDA’s initial choice not to analyze the environmental impacts of the rules – despite their substantial environmental impact and consequent social and economic impact – was contrary to NEPA. In response to mounting criticism, in Mid-August the FDA announced plans to conduct an environmental impact analysis. It is crucial that the FDA incorporate the conclusions of this analysis into the final rules, and the FDA should allow the public to comment on the resulting changes to the rules.
  • Some potential negative impacts of these rules on environmental and human health are below. Such impacts were not adequately considered when drafting the proposed rules.
    • The constraints on compost and manure use will cause more manure to be stockpiled, applied early to crop fields, or over-applied to fields not covered by the rules. This may lead to more pollution due to nutrient runoff, and greater use of synthetic fertilizers.
    • The rules require growers to monitor wildlife intrusion in crop fields and take action to prevent crop contamination from wildlife. It is likely these requirements will have unintended impacts on wildlife, penalizing growers who maintain wildlife habitat. Similar rules enacted in 2007 as part of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California led auditors to pressure farms to fence crop fields (fragmenting wildlife corridors) and remove habitat; these rules preceded a 13% loss in riparian habitat on farms and consequent decline in ecological diversity.
    • The rules are likely to lead to widespread use of chemical treatments to sterilize irrigation water, which may impact the environment.

Funding for Research and Education

Funding should be provided for research and education to fill gaps in knowledge related to food safety risks, as well as to help farms with limited resources comply with requirements.

  • Local growers care deeply about the quality and safety of the food they produce, and a key part of ensuring food safety is ensuring that all growers have access to current research-based information about food safety risks and practices that improve food safety.
  • The FDA acknowledges that current scientific knowledge is lacking with regard to some aspects of the rules (e.g. those relating to manure, compost, wildlife, and agricultural water risks). The FDA thus allows leeway to develop research-based alternatives to some of the requirements, and this flexibility should be commended. However, the small farms and farm service providers in New England do not have funding to conduct the necessary research. Federal funding should be dedicated to filling in research gaps, and such research should take place before implementing requirements that impose significant new costs on farms.
  • New food safety rules must not cause us to lose family farms that are already on the edge in this global food system. If new requirements are costly for small farms in our region, adequate funding must be provided to enable these growers to comply with the new requirements and ensure that they are not driven out of business.

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