CUESA: Food Safety in Biodiversity; CAFOs are contamination source
- We all want food free of mercury, salmonella, and E. coli. But is
food safety just about the absence of contaminants?
For Jo Ann Baumgartner of the Wild Farm Alliance, true food safety
starts with biodiversity, or the cultivation of a wide variety of
life forms in every farm ecosystem.
A safe food system requires attention to every level, from
production to food service. Whereas the current crisis around
salmonella in peanut butter is drawing attention to the importance
of sanitation at food processing facilities, the 2006 outbreak of E.
coli in bagged spinach pointed a finger at raw produce and the farms
that grow it. And while cleaning up large-scale food processing may
improve safety, sterilizing farmland or removing it of all life
but the food crop has in fact caused a great deal of controversy.
Baumgartner's organization has been documenting the fallout of this
strategy and its impact on farms. Unfortunately, she says, measures
to make California agriculture safe in the short term could mean
much less actual safety in the long run.
"Farmers are being forced to implement misguided requirements," says
Baumgartner. "It's not based on science and it is really harming
wildlife and the environment," she adds.
In response to the spinach contamination, farms that want to sell
salad greens on a medium or large scale are being asked to comply
with standards established by handlers and shippers. These standards
require measures such as creating bare ground buffers at the edge of
fields, the removal of hedgerows, and the addition of fences that
block established wildlife corridors. In addition to removing
habitat, many farmers are also trapping and poisoning wildlife.
Baumgartner points to a 2007 grower survey conducted by the Monterey
Country Resource Conservation District; 89% of the farmers who
responded said they were taking some kind of measure to remove or
fence out wildlife. Wild Farm Alliance also recently flew over the
Central Valley with the help of volunteer pilots through LightHawk
and found that over a mile of riparian trees had been cut down,
among other things.
iodiversity on the farm can actually help improve safety in a number
of ways. Hedgerows and native grasses are home to beneficial
insects, which can significantly reduce problem pests in crops and
do away with the need for pesticides, and thus keep chemical residue
out of our food. Native pollinators also make their home in
hedgerows and wild areas. But that's not where it ends; grasses and
wetlands also act as filters, removing pathogens that may appear on
farms near industrial scale livestock operations, where the cows are
the most significant carrier of E. coli. According to a recent Wild
Farm Alliance report, "just one meter of grass can filter E. coli
from cow feces during a rainstorm."
Baumgartner thinks the focus on eliminating vegetation and wildlife
from farms not only removes an important safeguard, it also ignores
what she believes is the source of the contamination: confined
animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Oddly, not much has been reported in the media about the potential
links between CAFOs and E. coli. The extreme concentration in these
facilities and the practice of feeding cows sub-therapeutic
antibiotics make CAFOs a significant risk. Meanwhile, attention has
instead been focused on animals such as deer, which, Baumgartner
says, have only been shown to be carriers of the bacteria 1-2% of
What can the average eater do? Buying salad mix directly from
farmers and bypassing the need for middle men like handlers and
shippers is an importantstart. That way, says Baumgartner, "you
know your greens haven't gone to a huge processing plant where
they've been washed with a million other pounds of salad mix."
What's more, this choice also means the freshest produce.
It might be equally important, however, for sustainability-minded
eaters to help shift the idea that a dichotomy must exist between
our wilderness and farmlands. Just thinking and talking about the
link between biodiversity and food safety can make an impact.
"Do we want to confine diversity to pristine national park areas and
sterilize our farm land?" Baumgartner asks. "I would say no.
Instead, farms can be a buffer between developed areas and rural
wild areas and benefit from the diversity that creates."