There is a thriving movement in Indian country focused on food sovereignty and increased control of local food systems. Like other assets in Indian country, Native food systems have been colonized, altered and, in some cases, destroyed. Today, many Native communities have taken an active role in reclaiming control of their local food system, taking a deeper examination of where food in their community comes from, looking at dollars that leave the reservation on food products, attempting to increase access to fresh and healthy foods, increase agricultural economic development activities for communities and individuals, and develop tribal policies that promote Native food sovereignty. Despite this thriving movement, however, a new federal law may potentially stall the progress of food systems work occurring in Indian country.
The Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in January 2011 and is the most sweeping reform in U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years. The act will shift federal regulation from simply responding to food contamination to a more concentrated effort at prevention of food contamination in the U.S. food chain. No doubt this well-intentioned law is aimed at limiting instances of food-borne illnesses and disease and also is connected to domestic national security concerns.
For more than two years, the FDA has delayed implementation of this act, extending public comment on numerous occasions, with the most recent extension until September 16, 2013. While they have extended public comment, they have yet to engage or consult Native nations or communities.
The proposed federal regulations should raise concerns for Native nations that have developed agricultural enterprises and supportive infrastructure to support tribal individuals engaged in agricultural activities. The developing regulations of the law, albeit still vague and murky, signal increasing importance on labeling, traceability and food-handling standards, and also increased emphasis on potentially costly licensing and inspection. Language of the law also signals funding to increase the capacity of state regulatory agencies, but does not include capacity development language for tribes. Moreover, the law also calls for increased monitoring, inspection and regulation from state agencies, potentially infringing on tribal sovereignty for those Native nations engaged in agriculture production and distribution.
While the FDA has heard from some small scale farmers and producers, Indian country has been virtually ignored in the development of these regulations. There is no doubt that food safety is an issue of concern for all Americans, including First Americans. But the creation of such sweeping federal legislation while bypassing normal channels of tribal consultation and input raises numerous concerns for tribes, organizations and individuals doing important work related to food sovereignty and food system control in Indian Country.
It is important that Native communities begin to examine the FSMA and analyze the potential implications and costs for Native communities, businesses and producers. Moreover, tribes should also begin to provide public comment on the Act and also demand tribal consultation.
To learn more about the FMSA and potential implications for Native communities and producers, you can access a recorded webinar hosted by First Nations Development Institute at FirstNations.org/fnk. To learn more about the FSMA, you can visit Fda.gov/FSMA.
Raymond Foxworth, Navajo, is Senior Program Officer at First Nations Development Institute. Raymond oversees the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), a program that works with Native nations and organizations on issues related to increasing Native food system control.