Safety in Biodiversity

February 6, 2009

Safety in Biodiversity

This is the second in a series of articles reporting on the 2009 Eco-Farm Conference. Read the first, about carbon sequestration, here >


salad_mixWe 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.

hedgerowBiodiversity 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 the time.

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 important start. 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.”

See a Wild Farm Alliance PDF about biodiversity on the farm here >