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Friday, April 18, 2014

Viewpoint: Michigan looking at major changes in food system

MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette opinionBy MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette opinion 
on April 18, 2014 at 12:05 PM, updated April 18, 2014 at 12:09 PM

The following is a letter to the editor that was sent to the Kalamazoo Gazette.

By Gail Philbin
This year is turning out to be a watershed moment for Michigan’s food system. We have several opportunities to reshape the future of our food and agriculture, and therefore, our watersheds. The changes could move us toward more sustainable, community-friendly farms or keep the status quo of a landscape dominated by polluting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or factory farms.
After years of political wrangling, a new $8.9 billion federal Farm Bill was signed in February with increased support for organic, locally grown foods. Over the next five years, these taxpayer-funded subsidies will come to Michigan in the form of various programs. Funds in the agricultural conservation programs will be allocated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Michigan, a state-based agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and will determine the quality of farming, food, water and air in Michigan.
Many subsidies in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) address the problems associated with the huge amounts of waste generated by factory farms. In addition to manure, this waste can contain residual antibiotics fed to animals (contributing to human resistance), chemicals used on animals and in facilities, pathogens and other contaminants. Overflowing or leaking waste storage lagoons can lead to contaminated runoff in local waterways. Air pollution from barns, waste storage facilities and the spraying of waste on fields is not uncommon.
In Michigan in 2013, about $2.3 million EQIP funds went to 14 contracts for practices dealing with problems caused by animal waste, an average of about $164,000 per contract.
Yet subsidies won’t solve underlying problems. Restoring the Balance to Michigan’s Farming Landscape, a report released by the sustainable agriculture coalition Less=More, demonstrates that many polluting factory farms are actually subsidized by taxpayers. It found that 37 Michigan CAFOs cited for environmental violations and unpermitted pollution discharges over 15 years ending in 2011 were awarded nearly $27 million in Farm Bill subsidies in the same time period, and 26 of them jointly racked up fines and penalties of more than $1.3 million.
Less=More believes less taxpayer support for polluting factory farms means a more sustainable Michigan, so it’s working to increase the amount of funding for sustainable livestock farmers. It offers an online resource to help farmers get easy access to applications and information about the new Farm Bill.
At the state level, certain decisions made in 2014 will determine just how much pollution from factory farms we will continue to tolerate. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is revising permit guidelines that regulate the amount of animal waste factory farms can discharge to local streams, rivers and lakes. 
On April 28 the Michigan Commission on Agriculture is scheduled to vote on a controversial proposal that would discriminate against small livestock farmers by removing them from nuisance lawsuit protection under Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, a protection that large-scale confinement operations will continue to enjoy. The original vote was postponed after nearly 700 comments were submitted in opposition to the change
Truly, there’s no better time to get involved with your food. Will 2014 be remembered as the year Michigan passed up opportunities for positive change in its food system or will it be the moment in history when citizens helped turn the corner towards a better future? The answer is up to us. Learn more at MoreforMichigan.org.
Gail Philbin is assistant director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.
For more Kalamazoo Gazette opinion pieces and letters visit http://www.mlive.com/opinion/kalamazoo/.

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