By Clyde Myers – Clyde Myers is a natural foods enthusiast, Columnist, and Blogger. He has contributed essays on foraging for wild foods in GRIT magazine and has led guided wild food foraging walks for multiple SEED projects. He lives in Columbus Indiana with his wife and two daughters where he is active in the local Libertarian Party.
How regulations and government interventions stifle the local food producers and make their products less safe.
“How much you want?” The shady character asks.
“How much can I get for twenty bucks?” Came my reply, though it didn’t matter. I needed my fix.
I needed the hit, the elixir that keeps me going. I’d pay nearly any price for it and it’s being illegal made me want it all the more. What contraband was I seeking? What had brought me down to the level of a common criminal? Heroin? Cocaine? Even just weed? Nah, Kid’s stuff. Those don’t get me what I’m after. What I am referring to, of course, is the vilest of all contraband…
Milk. Raw Milk. Pure, virgin moo juice.
The shady character? Just a local farmer. She is a good and decent person, performing an essential service that should be hailed as the noblest and righteous of professions. But here in Indiana and several other states, she is a criminal. I too am a criminal. I am a criminal because I want to drink milk that hasn’t been pasteurized. I am a criminal because I value the balance of my gut bacteria. I am a criminal because I want a strong immune system, and I am a criminal because I supported a local farmer. I am a criminal because, as a grown adult, I understand the risks of raw milk and am willing to take that risk.
If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m sort of hippy-dippy natural foods enthusiast. I forage for wild food plants and write about that topic for obscure natural living and farm magazines, my own blog, and I teach foraging classes and workshops several times a year. I grow an extensive organic garden, save and trade seeds, collect rainwater, barter for local organic eggs, etc. In the warmer months, I rarely wear shoes and hardly eat any meal that doesn’t contain some form of kale. Because of this, I am often assumed to be a leftist or at the very least, a Democrat. I am not, but it’s fair to say that most of the people that I interact with self-identify as left of center if not as total socialists.
These are well-intentioned folks with Bernie 2016 and CoExist stickers on their Subarus. We’re talkin’ organic vegetable munching, patchouli wearing, pot smoking, Anti-GMO, granola folks. Many of them struggling small-scale organic farmers or producers themselves. They are sweet folks and some of my favorite people on earth, misguided though they may be. It always strikes me as funny that these folks are so staunchly anti-libertarian, yet local, sustainable food production, which is so close to their hearts and livelihoods, is so incredibly hindered by government intervention that it should make anyone sign up for the LP newsletter and build a shrine to Ayn Rand after about 5 minutes of dealing with the red tape.
Regulations can seem like a good thing on the surface. Humans have been collectively putting their trust in the state to regulate businesses, especially those that can have a direct impact on a person’s health and well-being, for quite a long time. Certainly, no one wants to buy meat tainted by botulism or listeria-ridden spinach, and since businesses seem to survive despite being regulated and so does the food consuming population, we get used to calling regulation a success because we see these businesses working.
What we don’t see are the ones that closed or never got started. We don’t see the growth of current companies that was never able to happen due to the increased burdens from regulation. It is easy to call something a success when there is no metric by which to measure it. There is no unregulated space where all other factors are equal against which we could compare data. So food industry regulations always win the election because they’re always running unopposed. All the while meat still seems to become tainted and listeria still finds its way onto the spinach.
There’s apparently something strange that happens to the space-time continuum when money is transacted for a product. Granny Bess can bake you one of her blue ribbon pies in her uninspected kitchen from rhubarb she grew in her garden, fertilized with manure from her own chickens, and you’re allowed to assume the risk that her processes are clean enough to produce food and that she knows what she’s doing. This is a perfectly legal transaction.
However, if you buy the pie from the same Granny Bess, a pie made in the same kitchen, with the same ingredients, under the same conditions, that transaction is illegal. Even if you pay the many taxes on it, this practice is punishable by law. Why? Because according to the state of Indiana, when money changes hands, Granny Bess needs to not only be inspected but also must buy specific types of equipment, must have hand washing sinks placed at specific locations, and in most cases, must operate out of some space other than her home, as well as a myriad of other regulations. All of these things cost money.
Large scale businesses that are already well established can afford those types of entry barriers to the marketplace or the increased cost of continuing business but Granny Bess probably can’t. She’ll never get her business off the ground if she needs to invest in industrial equipment, pay for her food safety certification classes, then pay whatever the license fee is in addition to finding a suitable space from which to operate. Maybe she didn’t even want to go into business long term. Maybe she just wanted to operate long enough pay off the last of her home before retirement or get her bathroom remodeled. Should it cost her life savings to make a few extra dimes to rub together?
It’s easy to look at this and think that, despite the collateral damage of Granny Bess’s situation, there is a necessary public good that came out of the regulations and that was ensuring the health and safety of consumers. But is that really the outcome? Why can Granny Bess give you one of her pies if it’s so risky? Why can she donate a dozen of them to the school bake sale or the fire station fish fry fundraiser? The pies are still available for public consumption and are still being exchanged for money. The only difference is that Granny Bess isn’t the one benefiting.
How has the risk of consuming it been reduced? It hasn’t.
In his book “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” organic farmer Joel Salatin, owner/operator of Polyface Farms in Virginia, who has written several books and given multiple TED talks on sustainable agriculture extensively covers the way in which government regulations often keep him from using practices that would make his products have a beneficial impact on the environment and produce products that would be healthier for his customers to consume.
His argument is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that there are regulations or standards, just that the people making and enforcing these don’t know much, if anything, about the industry they’re regulating at all. These are government bureaucrats for whom the sole purpose of their jobs is supposed to be to keep the public safe from foodborne pathogens and contaminants, but they seldom know the nature of particular pathogens and their interaction with livestock in a holistic, science-based manner.
Salatin points out that they don’t know that pasture raised, grass fed cows are much healthier than cattle from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and don’t require the same antibiotic dosages that cows raised in CAFOs do. They don’t know that the chickens and cattle benefit from being pastured together as it more closely mimics the way ruminants and birds interact in nature. They just see chickens and cows together and say “No, you can’t do that!” Salatin exposes the glaring example that they also didn’t know that their recommendation to feed the remains of slaughtered cows to the next generation of feedlot cows would result in Mad Cow Disease.
Even after supposedly learning from that mistake they still advocate for the practice of feeding dead chickens to cows. They hold these family farms and their healthy animals to the same regulatory standards of the giant CAFOs where the cows stand knee deep in manure that flows to giant manure lagoons and where the fecal particulate in the air is so dense that the animals have to be pumped full of antibiotics just to survive long enough to be slaughtered. The CAFOs can afford to accommodate the regulations. Small time pasture farms have no need for the measures because of their superior practices but still have to bear the cost to accommodate them and often simply cannot.
My self-defeating, Bernie loving friends and colleagues would, unfortunately, argue that the government isn’t regulating enough and that businesses left unchecked would run amok and poison everyone with unsanitary practices. But it’s not that businesses left alone and unregulated would always result in safe, healthy, and ideal products, just that government intervention doesn’t either.
No matter how well intentioned, the net result is that the government ends up enforcing bad practices that contribute to there being more disease, more pollution and more risk to the public health and safety. It stifles local economies, restricts public access to healthy products, discourages ecologically sound land stewardship, and ultimately results in a less healthy and less safe population.
Salatin, Joel. Folks, This Ain’t Normal. 1st ed. New York: Center Street, 2012. Print.