Food Safety bill presents important family farmer litmus test for American politicians

Despite partisan gridlock, intense industry opposition, and a Tea Party campaign of misinformation, the Senate appeared to have done the right thing for both consumer protection and family size farms in passing a bill that included a few modest exemptions for small-scale farmers engaged in direct sales of local foods won in a series of last minute amendments.

As per usual when legislation is made in Congress, industrial agriculture sets the rules and these minor protections are the only thing standing between the smallest family farmers and expensive new regulations that could drive them out of business.

But now a minor parliamentary mistake threatens this important victory for consumers and family farmers. The Senate’s violation of an overlooked constitutional provision requiring that taxes originate in the House of Representatives has stalled the legislation in the House.

Industrial agriculture lobbyists and front groups funded by agribusiness are now using this procedural error to try to kill the new food safety bill or, even worse, to strip the hard-won farmer protection provisions from the bill entirely.

Almost as soon as an anonymous Republican Senate staffer tipped off Roll Call late Tuesday evening about the gaffe, Big Ag flacks and their supporters in Congress have been tripping over themselves to once more make their failed and dangerous case for why a common sense amendment sponsored by Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), the only organic farmer in the U.S. Senate, must be killed.

Even after the Peanut Corporation of America fiasco of last year and the massive egg recall from this past summer, members of Congress and the elite class of agribusiness lobbyists continue to ignore the elephant in the room regarding food safety and agricultural production, which as most informed citizens know is concentration.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so shameful to watch members of the Democratic Party like Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.) gush at the chance to take advantage of this parliamentary mistake to trample the opportunities for true family farmers into the ground.

Yesterday, Rep. Cardoza, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee and represents California's farm-rich San Joaquin Valley could barely contain his glee over the opportunity to strip the Tester amendment from the bill.

Cardoza went as far as calling the Tester amendment an “abomination” (very strong word folks for something that protects family farmers) and continued saying, "A small farm can devastate the industry as easily as a big farm.”

It’s hard to tell if Rep. Cardoza is just stupid or corrupt.

Fortunately, a quick look at political donations at Opensecrets.org offers some insight. During the 2010 election cycle, three of the top five industries donating to Rep Cardoza’s campaign were from the agricultural sector, including more than $103,000 from the “Crop Production & Basic Processing” industry - the number one industry paying for his re-election and the very people who are now demanding that Tester’s modest farmer protection provisions be killed.

This fact should not be lost on anyone, because this is how industrial agriculture has not only taken over food production in the U.S., driving farmers off the land, fattening Americans and contaminating our food, but it is also how corporate agribusiness has corrupted our democracy.

And if there’s one thing that Americans are rapidly becoming aware of, it is the fact that family farmers don’t kill people, but greed, excessive corporate power, dangerous corporate concentration and corruption within federal agencies do.

Failure to pass the food safety bill without the Tester and Manager’s amendments, which are minor stopgap provisions to protect a tiny, but economically vibrant sector of the agricultural economy would be a travesty of both justice and democracy.

If House Democrats and Senate Republicans cannot put aside bitter partisan bickering to put health and safety of American citizens over giant corporate interests with the passage of this bill, then they deserve to reap the consequences at the ballot box.

It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to show America what they stand for – huge corporations or everyday Americans. The Food Safety Modernization Act with the Tester amendment included is a perfect litmus test to see if they will stand up for the hopes and dreams of the little guy in this country or if they will continue down the long road of rewarding concentrated wealth.

Millions of Americans are watching and they will be organized to vote in 2012.

Dave Murphy is the founder and Executive Director of Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots community of over 150,000 Americans dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects our natural environment, sustains farmers and nourishes families.