May 212010

“If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”—Thomas Jefferson

When I was younger (and had spiky, multicolored hair) I had a very romantic vision of myself as a rebel. One who lives by her own bad ass rules. As I’ve grown older I have discovered to my chagrin that I am, by nature, a rule follower. It is rare for me to break the rules, even when I disagree with them. Work to change them, yes. Voice how idiotic they are, yes. Violate them, probably not. The ethics of Hellenismos have only intensified this trait.

While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
- Pericles, the Funeral Oration

Others don’t seem to share my inhibitions and joyfully break laws they feel are unjust. So while I (probably) won’t break these asinine laws, I will highlight a few groups of people who do in the hopes that more people can become involved in either changing these restrictive laws or stop more of them, like HR 2749, from becoming a law. Or hell, perhaps you may want to join in the flagrant violating as well.

Guerrilla gardeners are people who garden on another person’s land without permission. They trespass. The gardens could be planted on public property like a median strip between lanes of traffic or in a city park or it could happen on an abandoned plot of private property. Guerrilla gardeners believe that who actually owns the land isn’t as important as how they are (mis)using it. If the land if being abused or neglected they see nothing wrong with planting food or sometimes flowers there.

The goal is not just to plant a few things and then forget about the area, the goal for most guerrilla gardeners is to beautify and tend the secret plots and eventually harvest and eat what they have planted.

Guerrilla gardeners are not usually arrested by police or charged with trespassing since they are careful to pick only neglected areas to practice their green activism on. Plus, most police and public authorities are either amused or bewildered when confronted with a mob of people armed with plants and seeds determined to garden.

So “out” is this group that there is a web community where you can post a photo and a location of a plot of poor land and ask others to help you plant it on a specific date.  They also tell you how to construct and use “seed bombs.”

Students at Köln International School of Design engage in guerrilla gardening

The next two groups are far less “out” than guerrilla gardeners.

The Poultry Underground are city dwellers who raise chickens – either legally or illegally. I would love to link you to an on line community for those who raise chickens illegally, but I’ve yet to find one that wasn’t “locked.” People within legal and illegal urban chicken farming groups exchange information on how to properly care for chickens raised in apartments, how to avoid ticking off your neighbors (so they don’t call the cops on you), the locations of good roosters for romantic dates with your hens, and how to get laws changed in your city to allow legal chicken raising.

It appears very few chickens are raised for meat, but are valued for their abundant and tasty eggs and for the companionship the chickens provide to their owners.

To get an idea of what urban chicken farming is all about, you may want to see Mad City Chickens.

Mad City Chickens is a sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical look at the people who keep urban chickens in their backyards. From chicken experts and authors to a rescued landfill hen or an inexperienced family that decides to take the poultry plunge—and even a mad professor and giant hen taking to the streets—it’s a humorous and heartfelt trip through the world of backyard chickendom.

Click here for a list of upcoming movie screening dates. And yes, they are showing the film overseas!

Raw Milk drinkers believe there are health and taste benefits to drinking unpasteurized, non-homogenized milk. Some think it helps protect against allergies, can ward off arthritis, and cures certain skin conditions. Most of raw milks devotees are also part of the natural foods movement whose members try to only eat foods that are minimally processed and don’t contain hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, food colors, or flavorings.

In half of the states of the USA selling or buying raw milk direct-to-consumer or in a store is illegal due to valid concerns over the safety of consuming unpasteurized milk. The FDA strongly advises people not to drink raw milk due to possible Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria contamination. Raw milk drinkers say this danger is grossly overblown and that no food is 100% safe. If raw milk is banned, why is risky sushi allowed? Or E. coli laden tomatoes or lettuce? After all – the largest outbreak of E. coli to date was from pasteurized milk. Over 200,000 sick and 18 dead. In over 10 years 800 people have become ill from raw milk or cheese made from raw milk and there have been no deaths.

Even more than the urban chicken movement, raw milk sellers and buyers are underground. The names of farmers willing to sell raw milk are passed around only to those whom you personally trust. Raw milk drinkers are warned not to let doctors know if they drink the milk or give it to their children for fear that the doctor will alert the authorities. Don’t laugh, it’s happened. Secrecy, to protect the farmer, is paramount. I know I could score a dime of pot faster than I could score some raw milk.

But raw milk proponents are becoming more vocal and organized about making or keeping raw milk legal.  The Organic Consumers Association has launched a  campaign to save raw milk and Boston was the site of a raw milk “drink in”.

All three of these groups have something in common. They are filled with people who desire a food or a way of producing food so much that they are willing to break the law to do it. And if the Senate approves S 510 as the House has already approved HR 2749, there will be many more foods and ways of producing food that become illegal.

HR 2749 – The Food Safety Enhancement Act and S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010
HR 2749 passed in the House, after some moderate changes were made, and now sits ready for the Senate to tackle as a sister Bill, S. 510 the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. The Senate hasn’t been as quick to move on it as first thought, but it could gain priority after the usual summer lettuce and tomato E. coli season picks up.

Proponents of the Bills say this is a measure to improve food safety both from food produced within the USA and for imported foods. U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich explains why the Bill is needed.

“The legislation requires foreign and domestic food facilities to have safety plans in place to prevent food hazards before they occur, increases the frequency of inspections. Additionally, it provides strong, flexible enforcement tools, including mandatory recall. Most importantly, this bill generates the resources to support FDA food-safety activities.”

Opponents say this Bill will end small scale farming and sustainable farming practices in favor of harmful and unhealthy industrial methods. While there are other portions of both Bills that small and sustainable farmers and their supporters see as worrisome, these are the main objections.

  • They say that the Bill requires the use of approved pesticides for crops and drugs to be used on animals to keep the food supply “safe”. That corporations like Monsanto had a major role in writing up the pesticide and animal feed guidelines and they are not known as champions of food supply ethics.
  • Animals cannot be on the same farm as crops. So rotation farming and other sustainable farming techniques like using animal manure for fertilizing the fields would no longer be allowed.
  • If a farm wishes to use sustainable or organic farming techniques they must register and be certified as an organic farmer – a process that is costly and would hit small scale farmers hard.
  • Failure to abide by this law results can result in fines, prison terms, and loss of land.

For further reading on these two Bills – go here for the cliff notes version and here for a longer article.  Here is a PDF version.  All articles urge you to call or email your Senator to urge them to not pass S 510.

These two Bills, HR 2749 and S 510 would make criminals of even more people for the crime of wanting to produce and eat natural, sustainably grown, locally produced food. For those of us who like a bit of junk once in a while, bad news - salt is in the federal cross hairs, too. The collateral damage of the war on salt could be bacon. Now THAT could get me to lead an underground, illegal food movement.