Judith McGeary's t-shirt labels her clearly as an organic sticker: Agtivist. McGeary fights for family farms, small ranches and food producers outside the agricultural-industrial complex. With her husband, she owns a farm (70 sheep, 50 chickens, five cows and four horses) which he operates while she agitates.
In 2006, this former lawyer founded FARFA, which is designed to save the family farm from regulation and follow what it calls common-sense food policies. In just a few years, she’s made a mark.
Her Texas-based organization was instrumental in changing two significant Federal policies. Along with a coalition, they combated the National Animal Identification System, which would have required every agricultural animal to be tagged. FARFA also claims victory in federal legislation that exempts small producers from Federal food safety regulations, allowing them access to markets without having to maintain standards meant for larger corporations. In Texas, they’ve also made it easier to sell at farmers’ markets.
“When the USDA announced they were withdrawing the plans for NAIS, it wasn’t a movie moment, when we rode off into the sunset," she says. "But it was an incredible validation that with a lot of people working together--even when you’re up against big money and big power--you can have an impact.”
Government oversight isn’t bad per se, but McGeary explains that many measures designed for corporate farming practices are like sledgehammers which can crush smaller farms. Had NAIS passed, it would have been a tremendous and expensive burden on small farms, which would be forced to tag animals down to the last guinea fowl. Identifying animals was originally intended to help track the spread of disease among large population of livestock; it makes little sense for small-scale farms where disease is not as prevalent and more easily contained. It was a big issue that took big effort. Many organizations advocated and lobbied for four straight years, until the issue died.
McGeary took an unlikely route to farming policy. After studying biology at Stanford, this Texan returned to law school in Austin and began her career with a prestigious clerking job. But a conversation with a UT biologist on sustainability prompted her to study sustainable agriculture with the aim of becoming a consultant. But then the animal ID issue came up so she quit the legal world to live her environmental principles and start FARFA. Right there, right then.
Her law degree may have helped. “It is useful to understand and write proposed statuary language,” she says. And sometimes she tells people, “I’m a lawyer, and even I can’t understand what these regulations require” -- so how could a regular farmer be expected to? “My successes have more to do with what I’ve learned from activist leaders than from law school,” she adds.
Even though FARFA has had few victories, the fight isn’t over.
Next on the agenda: genetically modified foods -- which requires more regulation, not less. It’s a big issue now that 90% of corn and soy planted in the U.S. is GMO. Among prepackaged food 80% has GMO ingredients. “From the consumer side, the heart of issue is labeling and empowering consumers to know what they’re eating, and enable them to make a choice whether they want to eat GMO foods.” However, McGeary states that the majority of consumers think there should be a choice, but have no idea they are already consuming GMOS. Not providing labelling is “incredibly irresponsible of the government.” (Vermont is considering a bill to be the first state to require labeling, but Monsanto is threatening to sue.) “There are concerns about autoimmune and kidney issues -- even short term studies suggest there could be some serious health effects, but the FDA has accepted the companies’ own studies.” It’s hard to get independent research since the companies tightly control their product.
Genetically modified foods are an issue for farmers as their crops can be contaminated by stray GMO seeds, putting them at risk of lawsuits for patent infringement. Hundreds have already been taken to court. “When 90% of corn or soy planted in this country is GMO, it’s hard to live at a safe distance," she says. "Even if Monsanto doesn’t sue, many people think -- myself included -- that these crops are flawed.”
It is these larger entities that McGeary is concerned about: “Almost any problem we’ve got, be it GMO or raw milk, if you dig a bit you’ll find a large corporation controlling the market and systems.” Indeed, four companies control about 80% of the beef." But she says those numbers are getting harder to track as the Feds change reporting requirements.
It’s going against these big interests that taught her the value of building coalitions -- which FARFA did in the Animal ID fight. “I’d like to see us do more of that coalition work generally. Tthat was one of the empowering things about it -- I got to deal with people from the entire realm of the spectrum.” Coalitions can happen more on the consumer side; the agtivist points to the fact that nearly two-thirds of their membership is consumers concerned about food not farmers. And the group wants to bring more people on board. “The people who are concerned about what they are feeding themselves and their family, that’s a human concern -- it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum,” she observes.
McGeary thinks good activists have much in common. “Whether they’re far right wing or far left wing, I learned so much from both sides,” she says. In fact, it makes her want to write a book about what makes a good activist, online or off.
“Online organizing is a wonderful tool, but if you aren’t pushed, it allows you to isolate yourself even more than you would in normal day-to-day life," she says. "There is so much info…so many online communities, you can easily do nothing but hang out with people you agree with. It takes an extra effort online to cross those boundaries and be with those other people you disagree with. Just like in real life, let’s deal with it.”
That’s where change can happen.
photos via Jen Reel/The Texas Observer