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The Real Nitty-Gritty on Small Farms and the Food-Safety Bill

As recently as Monday, the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) seemed set to sail through the House and to the president's desk for rubber-stamping. But now it's stalled in the Senate yet again, due to a technical error that could well sink the legislation -- and with it any prospects for food-safety reform for a generation. While advocates fight for the bill's life amid the chaos of the lame-duck Senate, renewed opposition to S. 510 is popping up in some surprising corners.

Many family-scale farm supporters had been overjoyed at the inclusion of the Tester-Hagan amendment into the Manager's amendment package. Tester-Hagan is designed to protect small farms and processors from onerous regulations more appropriate to mega-scale food manufacturers and processors.

Yet euphoria around the Tester-ized bill is hardly unanimous. Some advocates are still sending emails, Tweets, and Facebook posts insisting that the Senate did Monsanto's bidding by crafting S. 510. (We're among the company's biggest critics, but even we can't see the connection on this one.) According to this surprisingly persistent line of reasoning, S. 510 would criminalize backyard food growing and end the practice of seed saving, thus giving Monsanto a complete monopoly over the seed market. In fact, S. 510 deals with neither gardening nor seed-saving. And to enforce this new draconian order, 4,000 armed thugs from the FDA will soon be kicking down the doors of small farms everywhere.

While such fears are clearly anti-government, Tea Party-fueled fantasia, Grist contributor David Gumpert has been making a calm, rational case that S. 510 poses a serious threat to small-scale farming, most recently in Food Fight series. Spurred by criticism of the Tester amendment from the independent news blog Activist Post, Gumpert took a closer look at the language of the revised bill, and didn't like what he saw. As many of you out there on the Interwebs share his concerns, we called our battle-weary Food Fight participants back to duty to really drill down into the nitty-gritty details of the protections. As Judith McGeary of FARFA said, it's "very ugly sausage making" -- but the bill did not sacrifice our nascent local-food system to the grinder as some are saying. If you're in a hurry, jump straight to McGeary's magisterial, point-by-point defense of Tester's protections that closes this piece.