Organic Sense

Safe Food in a Natural World

by Jo Ann Baumgartner, Director of Wild Farm Alliance  on January 10, 2011

The feeling that the world is going to be all right often comes to me when outdoors standing by a clear running stream or in a prairie pasture with wildflowers glinting in the sunlight. It’s the beauty and, I suspect, the functioning systems of these places that fill me with awe and respect and knowledge that these natural libraries will help see us through—okay, may help us make it to the next millennium—if we can learn to co-exist.

Agriculture is a kind of dance between the wild and the managed. For organic farmers, that dance has inspired a different kind of agrarian thinking focused on working with nature. That stream’s buffer and that prairie are helping to clean water, sequester carbon and support pollinators. They are probably also sustaining diverse microbial soils that resist disease, fix nitrogen and conserve water; supporting vegetation that reduces erosion and filters pollutants; and providing habitat for rodent-eating avian and terrestrial animals that help maintain that diversity for which nature strives. In places, farms have already lost this mix, farmers have lost land management knowledge, and policy makers have lost their understanding of it all. These vacuums in nature create non-functional landscapes, and we have been paying the price.

At the Wild Farm Alliance, we sometimes like to be in the fray, to respectfully fight the fight and find a balance when things seem out of place. Lately our fray has been about food safety. We speak for native species and natural processes that intermingle with and support farms, and we advocate for a viable agriculture. In the case of food safety, this means co-existing with conservation efforts—and one-size does not fit all. On the surface, it seems so easy to wave away these statements, like swatting CAFO flies laden with E. coli pathogens. As if it were so simple.

It’s instructive to learn how we got to this juncture of heightened food safety awareness, imminent produce food safety regulations, a looming national war on nature, and why one size doesn’t fit all. The answer comes down to industrial systems of agriculture gone awry.

First, let’s look at Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). It is suggested that E.coli 0157:H7 mutated and proliferated in cattle CAFOs due to the unhealthy living conditions, and to the large amounts of antibiotics given not just for health, but to make the animals gain weight quickly (5). While a discrepancy exists among researchers on whether the CAFO diet of high grain/low roughage plays a factor in cattle herds’ infection rates, other studies clearly point that CAFO manure slurries have more E. coli pathogens and persist longer in soils than those from solid manure in a farmyard (2,4,7). Manure slurries have lower pH, fiber, levels of native coliform and aeration, while having higher soluble carbon and nitrogen (1). While E. coli can exist in many places, its preferred state is in the guts of animals where conditions like these are similar.

Another case comes from California’s Salinas Valley, where spring salad mix is king. Once E. coli was inadvertently being spread by cattle on the landscape, some made its way to a spinach field which ended up killing 3 people and sickening hundreds in 2006. No one knows how the spinach was contaminated—it might have been from manure-laden dust, irrigation water, or non-native pigs. In lieu of not knowing, all of wildlife and its habitat were blamed when, in fact, the majority of native wildlife populations have a low risk of carrying of E. coli and Salmonella pathogens—zero to less than three percent, with the higher percent occurring when wildlife are associated with polluted areas (8).

Industrial spring mix is a high-risk product. Thousands of cut surfaces are sites for infection. Millions of pounds are washed in vats with chlorinated recycled water. The bagged product must be kept continuously cold or it turns into a micro-incubator for pathogens, and it is allowed to be on the shelf for up to 17 days. In the aftermath of the spinach contamination, frogs are being poisoned, deer shot or fenced out, and wildlife habitat denuded in the Salinas Valley. Meanwhile, grasses, vegetated treatment systems, and wetlands are known to naturally filter 70-95% of E. coli pathogens (3,6). But in order to keep the product flowing and the focus off the real problem, the billion-dollar produce industry has advocated for industrial-sized food safety requirements for small and large farms alike and for sterile farm situations devoid of conservation measures.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, just finalized by Congress, states that rulemaking will “take into consideration … conservation and environmental practice standards and policies established by Federal natural resource conservation, wildlife conservation, and environmental agencies. An amendment by Senator Boxer stripped the Act of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms. Instead, the FDA is mandated to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms. The FDA is planning to release food safety rules next year, so now they have strong direction from Congress for the co-existence of food safety and conservation practices in their rulemaking. As our coalition wrote: "This capped a long fight by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and its members and allies for food safety rules that protect consumers without curbing the growing movement toward fresh, local and regional food.” Other improvements made by our Coalition eliminated across-the-board fees on producers, required harmonization with the National Organic Program, limited duplicative paperwork requirements, and finally provided some possible exemptions for small producers and local food. These improvements are a win for conservation-based agriculture.

For more information about the Food Modernization Act and the amendments to the bill, see our website, www.wildfarmalliance.org.


Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance, works on conservation, food safety, and organic issues. She is author of the policy paper Food Safety Requires a Healthy Environment. Before joining WFA in 2001, she addressed sustainable production topics, was senior research for a book of California’s rare wildlife species, and an organic farmer for over a decade. She has a keen interest in the conservation of native species for their own sake, and the connections between farms and the larger ecosystem.


References:

1. Franz, E. and A. H. C. Bruggen. 2008. Ecology of E. coli O157H7 and Salmonella enterica in the primary vegetable production chain. Critical Reviews in Microbiology, 34:143–161, 2008.

2. Franz, E., Semenov, A. V., Termorshuizen, A. J., de Vos, O. J., Bokhorst, J. G. and van Bruggen, A. H. C. 2008. Manure–amended soil characteristics affecting the survival of E. coli O157:H7 in 36 Dutch soils. Environ. Microbiol. 10, 313–327.

3. Knox, A. K., K. W. Tate, R. A. Dahlgren, and E. R. Atwill. 2007. Management reduces E. coli in irrigated pasture runoff. California Agriculture 61 (4).

4. Nicholson, F.A., Groves, S.J., Chambers, B.J. 2005. Pathogen survival during livestock manure storage and following land application. Bioresource Technology 96, 135–143.

5. PCIFAP (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production). 2008. Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

6. Tate, K., E. Atwill, J. W. Bartolome, and G. Naderd. 2006. Significant Escherichia coli attenuation by vegetative buffers on annual grasslands. Journal of Environmental Quality 35.

7. Unc, A., and Goss, M.J. 2006. Culturable Escherichia coli in soil mixed with two types of manure. Soil Science Society of America Journal 70, 763–769.

8. Wild Farm Alliance: Relative Risk of Animal Presence to Unprocessed Produce 

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