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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Illegal Backyard Garden?

Q: Would a new bill in Congress make my backyard organic garden illegal?

A: A House bill proposes to split the Food & Drug Administration, creating a separate entity to oversee food safety. It’s aimed at food sold in supermarkets and doesn’t say anything about organic gardening, pesticides, farmers’ markets or that tomato plant in your backyard.


This one keeps hitting my inbox.

Hello friends and fellow citizens,


I just stumbled on some pretty disturbing legislation coming out of the Congress of the United States. The bill is HR 875 and it’s labeled as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. At first glance it didn’t seem like much. However, there are several, including exposing some pretty scary legislation enclosed in the bill.
In the midst of the financial crisis, it seems that these initiatives are sliding in under the radar. Many people are not even aware of them-
It is imperative that you look into this immediately and with extreme scrutiny as our heath and well-being are threatened!!! If this bill passes, you can say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer’s market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!
Things we are finding in the bill:
* Effectively criminalizes organic farming but doesn’t actually use the word organic.
* Effects anyone growing food even if they are not selling it but consuming it.
* Effects anyone producing meat of any kind including wild game.
* Legislation is so broad based that every aspect of growing or producing food can be made illegal. There are no specifics which is bizarre considering how long the legislation is.
* Section 103 is almost entirely about the administrative aspect of the legislation. It will allow the appointing of officials from the factory farming corporations and lobbyists and classify them as experts and allow them to determine and interpret the legislation. Who do you think they are going to side with?
* Section 206 defines what will be considered a food production facility and what will be enforced up all food production facilities. The wording is so broad based that a backyard gardener could be fined and more.
* Section 207 requires that the state’s agriculture dept act as the food police and enforce the federal requirements. This takes away the states power and is in violation of the 10th amendment.
The bill is monstrous on level after level – the power it would give to Monsanto, the criminalization of seed banking, the prison terms and confiscatory fines for farmers, the 24 hours GPS tracking of their animals, the easements on their property to allow for warrantless government entry, the stripping away of their property rights, the imposition by the filthy, greedy industrial side of anti-farming international "industrial" standards to independent farms – the only part of our food system that still works, the planned elimination of farmers through all these means.

I encourage you to look into this immediately and help remove this bizarre piece of legislation.


Talk about Internet hysteria. This bill, H.R. 875, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), has sparked chain e-mails, blog postings and other exclamation-point-filled rants (like the one above), claiming that the legislation targets organic farmers, benefits manufacturers of genetically engineered seeds, and threatens to uproot backyard vegetable gardens across the country. It doesn’t.

DeLauro introduced H.R. 875, called the Food Safety Modernization Act, on Feb. 4, and it was promptly referred to House committees. There’s no indication as to when it may be brought to the floor for consideration, despite what some blog posts maintain. The stated purpose of the bill is “to establish an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services to be known as the ‘Food Safety Administration,’ " which would oversee food safety and labeling in the U.S., creating a single government entity in charge of preventing food-borne illnesses. DeLauro’s press release announcing the legislation, introduced after the peanut butter salmonella outbreak in the U.S., said that “FDA would be split into an agency responsible for food safety (the Food Safety Administration) and another responsible for regulation of drugs and devices. This move creates an agency solely focused on protecting the public through better regulation of the food supply.”

The bill has 41 cosponsors and has been endorsed by major food and consumer safety organizations, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Food & Water Watch is a nonprofit organization that advocates for clean water and safe food and is headed by a woman who used to work for Public Citizen, the consumer group founded by Ralph Nader. It has posted a fact sheet on H.R. 875 on its site, disputing rumors about "food police."

The legislation stipulates that the new FSA (Food Safety Administration) would set safety regulations for food establishments and "food production facilities" and would be able to inspect such facilities. Its regulations also would pertain to imported foods. The e-mail posted above and others say that the definition of "food production facility" is so broad that it could include backyard gardens. The bill says: "The term ‘food production facility’ means any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation." It seems quite a stretch to think that anyone’s personal vegetable patch would be considered a "farm, ranch or orchard." First Lady Michelle Obama showed no signs of concern last week as she broke ground on a sizable 1,100-foot garden plot on the White House lawn. Organic, of course.

The e-mail above argues that DeLauro’s bill "[e]ffectively criminalizes organic farming but doesn’t actually use the word organic." We’re not sure how exactly a bill would criminalize something it doesn’t mention, but the e-mail is correct in that the word "organic" is nowhere to be found. Another Internet posting more alarmingly claims: "Bill will require organic farms to use specific fertilizers and poisonous insect sprays dictated by the newly formed agency to ‘make sure there is no danger to the public food supply.’ " But the quoted phrase isn’t in this bill. Nor is there any mention of chemical versus organic fertilizers or "poisonous insect sprays," or, for that matter, pesticides in general.

The only mention of fertilizers we could find was this, requiring that the FSA create regulations to: "include, with respect to growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations, minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water." The idea that "fertilizer use" would not include organic fertilizers is pure speculation well beyond what the legislation calls for.

Also, organic farming is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under its "National Organic Program," not the FDA.

And It Gets Even More Hysterical

E-mails and blog postings claim that the agricultural giant Monsanto will benefit greatly from the bill; some say the often-protested company was the main lobbyist, and still others say DeLauro’s husband "works for Monsanto." He doesn’t.

DeLauro’s spouse, Stanley Greenberg, is chairman and CEO of Greenberg-Quinlan Research Inc., a public issues research and polling firm. The company does surveys. And public relations work. Monsanto was one of the firm’s clients. Greenberg is a pollster, not a lobbyist or a Monsanto employee, and he just released a memoir on his life as a pollster to five world leaders, including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

Also, there is nothing in the bill about "GPS tracking" of animals, as the e-mail above states, and not a peep about "seed banking."

Small Farm Concern

Small farmers, however, may well have concerns about this bill. Food & Water Watch’s fact sheet acknowledges that there’s always a worry that government regulation of food production will adversely affect small farms, which can’t absorb the possible costs of abiding by regulation as easily as big food producers can. "The dilemma of how to regulate food safety in a way that prevents problems caused by industrialized agriculture but doesn’t wipe out small diversified farms is not new and is not easily solved," the site says. It goes on to say that other bills, not H.R. 875, that have been introduced could create problems for small operations, such as one that requires electronic record-keeping and registration fees with the FDA.

Another group called the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which supports "sustainable farming and direct farm-to-consumer transactions," raises several concerns about DeLauro’s legislation and how it could affect small farms and in particular, producers of raw milk, which the FDA has declared to be unfit for consumption. But the group states that "much of what has circulated the internet is not accurate," and nowhere in its criticism of the legislation does it say organic farming would be outlawed or home gardeners would face regulations.

We suppose in the grand realm of all that’s possible, or more likely a futuristic B movie, federal bureaucrats could decide that public safety calls for inspections of every backyard garden in the nation, leading everyday citizens to surreptitiously cultivate tomato plants in a closet with a sunlamp, lest they get busted by the cops. But we kinda doubt it.

– by Lori Robertson

Full disclosure: The author has an organic vegetable garden.


111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 875.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn). “DeLauro Assails Full-Scale Breakdown of Food Safety System and Introduces New FDA Reform Legislation,” press release, 4 Feb. 2009.

Food & Water Watch. Background on H.R. 875, accessed 26 March 2009.

Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. HR 875 – The Federal Take-Over of Food Regulation, 13 March 2009.

Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Flawed Food Safety Bills in Congress, accessed 26 March 2009.