Out of an abundance of caution

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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February 17, 2004: We say, "Food is safe for health, farming systems are safe for the environment," and then we layer on the regulations. I wonder why?

The food chain is transforming best management practices into rules and regulations, standards and protocols. I wonder why?

It all started with one voluntary Environmental Farm Plan more than a decade ago. Now they are everywhere -- few are voluntary or will stay voluntary for long. Here's a sample list of the plans, protocols, standards, rules and guidance documents that have arrived for many farmers in little more than a decade: nutrient management plans, contingency plans, emergency plans, hazard analysis critical control point (HAACP), quality assurance programs, refugia for BT corn, technology use agreements and traceability initiatives. More are coming: animal transport standards, deadstock management, antibiotic resistance management, ISO 14000 - an international environmental management standard -- and source water protection plans. This transformation to formal, documented assurance schemes has emerged throughout the food chain. I wonder why?

Is it because the food chain is adopting more and more industrial methods of production and there is no way to trust industrial processes in the same way we trust food with the farmer's face on it? Is it because the long-distances that so much of our food travels adds new risks? The discovery of mad cow disease in North America has already resulted in half a dozen new rules and additional recommendations from an international panel of experts. The goal is to re-establish long-distance, cross border movements.

What if all this emphasis on formal assurance programs creates unrealistic expectations about the safety of food for health and the security of our farming systems for the environment? Food and farming, after all, are rooted in living plants and animals. Life is ecological. Subject a part of the creation to a repetitive industrial process and creation will change, adapt, and eventually work around such constraints.

These questions underlie the Christian Farmers Federation's seminar series this winter. I invite you to join us at one of our eleven sessions. Help us explore the question: Can still more regulations make the food chain safer for our health and for our environment?

The series starts on February 16 in Simcoe and ends on March 26 near Ottawa. Dates, locations and registration are on the CFFO website at www.christianfarmers.org or call: 519-837-1620.

The Americans tell us that new rules are appropriate in response to the identification of one sick cow "out of an abundance of caution." Europeans would just characterize these steps as the implementation of the precautionary principle. I wonder if all these formal assurances create unrealistic expectations about the safety of our food chain.


For complete list of events, please visit: www.christianfarmers.org/cffo-at-work/workshops/schedule.htm



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