Food, frogs, and feces

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by Brian Devore | April 24, 2009 • The good news is that a bevy of “food safety” bills being considered in Congress are probably not part of a grand conspiracy to outlaw organic and sustainable family farming, as some highly-charged e-mails making the rounds claim. But you don’t always need malevolent intentions to do great harm. Regardless of intent, it is the impact that counts.

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

The Land Stewardship Project has begun discussions with our members to determine the potential impacts of these proposed laws, which their authors say, in general, will create a better system for tracing food back to its source. That is a laudable goal, but as with anything, the devil is in the details.

While portions of these bills may have some merit, their one-size-fits-all Band-Aid approach has great potential to do more harm than good. They may not result in the end of sustainable and organic agriculture as we know it—but if any of these bills pass in their present form, sustainable agriculture and the local foods movement could suffer severe setbacks. Meanwhile, the main source of our food safety problems—industrial ag—will get yet another free pass to continue business as usual.

That’s why at this point LSP is not supporting any of the “food safety” legislation moving forward through Congress.

In the Name of ‘Food Safety’
After decades of starving regulatory budgets and generally looking the other way while our food system becomes increasingly industrialized and concentrated, Congress has been stirred into action by recent contamination scares involving spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peanuts, peppers, beef and pistachios—the list goes on. These scares have highlighted what should have been obvious long ago: this nation’s food safety system is broken. As just one sign of how bad things are, the federal government can only request that processors recall food suspected of being contaminated.

But be wary whenever industry pushes our lawmakers to enact legislation in the name of “food safety.” That sounds all well and good, but we’ve been down this road before, and the results have not always been positive for sustainable, family farm-based agriculture—or food safety, for that matter.

For example, a few years ago, the meat industry—packers as well as commodity groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—pushed for meat irradiation in the name of “public health.” Of particular concern to the beef industry was the prevalence of the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 in meat products. Outbreaks in beef of E. coli 0157-H7 can be traced to over-use of antibiotics and grain-based feeds in the large-scale beef industry.

But instead of dealing with the problem at the source by adjusting production practices or even cleaning up meat processing plants to reduce fecal contamination (it’s been done in other countries), the U.S. beef industry has been pushing for the Band-Aid, enabler approach: zap dirty, contaminated meat. Meanwhile, E. coli continues to exist in the food system from field to fork.

Meanwhile, studies and real-world experience show that grass-fed beef significantly lowers a farm’s reliance on antibiotics and grain. You’d think the beef industry would be scrambling to adopt any production system that could help rid the food chain of the deadly E. coli bug before the meat even leaves the farm or ranch. But instead, they are willing to rely on paperwork, irradiation and computer chips to deal with the problem after the fact.

Now, our failure to deal with E. coli contamination is affecting the non-meat sector of the food system. For example, in 2006 E. coli contamination was found in bagged spinach. As a result, in California, which produces 75 percent of all leafy greens, the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) was developed. Producers who sign onto the LGMA agree to take numerous steps to protect the “safety” of their greens. Unfortunately, it seems that in the rush to tie blame to anyone (or anyTHING) but industrial agriculture, various “experts” have concluded that wild animals are transporting E. coli from feedlots to produce fields. So, acting under the “guidance” of consultants and food industry auditors, many producers have been taking extreme measures to keep wildlife out of their fields.

Farmers have felt pressure to remove hedgerows, grassy waterways, windbreaks, filter strips, ponds, waterways—just about any habitat that could be seen as attractive to everything from frogs and mice to waterfowl, deer and wild pigs. In one case, a mile of mature riparian habitat 100 feet wide was removed from a farm on the Central Coast of California due to “food safety” concerns, according to the Wild Farm Alliance.

This is all taking place despite scientific evidence that wildlife are not the problem.

One joint preliminary study by USDA, University of California-Davis and that state’s Department of Fish and Game showed a less than one half of one percent of occurrence of E. coli 0157:H7 in wildlife living in Central Coast counties. In addition, an analysis of FDA data found that in the past decade, E. coli outbreaks have usually been traced to processed, bagged salad mixes, not crops harvested as whole heads, bunched greens, or greens that are usually cooked. But denying a frog a home is easier than telling a major food company it has to clean up its act.

These measures are not only bad for wildlife, but seriously deter the ability of sustainable agriculture to, well, be sustainable. At the roots of sustainable/organic farming systems is an integration of food production with natural functions. Such farms rely on diverse vegetative cover, increased microbial activity in the soil, beneficial insects and other critters and perennial plant cover to produce food without chemicals. Sterilizing a farm to keep nature at bay undermines all of this. It destroys sustainable farming’s ability to utilize ecological services to produce food in a safe, healthy and environmentally sound manner. For example, a study in the Journal of Environmental Quality showed that grass and wetlands can remove 99 percent of E. coli present in surface water.

Denied such services, sustainable farmers may find themselves unable to gain access to the natural systems needed to raise food in a natural way. The alternative? Quit farming or begin using the chemicals and other inputs that make industrial ag viable.

Here’s the kicker: there is talk of taking the principles of the LGMA concept nationwide. Unfortunately, the same mentality that went into “sterilizing” farms in California seems to be behind the food safety bills being considered by Congress. This is a reactionary take on food safety, rather than a matter of due diligence based on science.

We’re also seeing even more direct regulatory crackdowns on various aspects of the sustainable ag-local foods movement in the name of “food safety.” Writing in the Nation, David E. Gumpert describes producers selling meat, dairy, apple cider and other products to consumers having their livelihood severely threatened by overzealous government regulators who can’t seem to get as excited over filthy conditions in a large-scale meat processing facility. “…as the re-emergence of a farm-to-consumer economy draws increasing amounts of cash out of the mass-production system, the new movement is bumping up against suddenly energized regulators who claim they want to ‘protect’ us from pathogens and other dangers,” writes Gumpert.

Sustainable farming is not part of the problem—it’s part of the solution. The way to build food systems that help produce health in our communities and that minimize the consequences of any food disease outbreak is to support healthy and diverse soils, farms and communities. It’s time our lawmakers and regulators acknowledged that. A one-size-fits-all mentality that benefits industrial ag to the exclusion of all other types of farming does worse than discriminate against sustainable farms. It threatens to put at a severe competitive disadvantage the very food system that offers the most hope of bringing us safe, healthy, environmentally-sustainable sustenance.

Any truly comprehensive food safety reform must go beyond pathogens and take into account issues such as pesticide contamination, over-use of antibiotics and the various “hidden” costs of factory farming; costs that are serious health hazards, but aren’t as immediate as someone getting sick after eating a rancid peanut. Such reforms will get at the root cause of problems with our food and farming system: an industrialized system that treats farmers, eaters, the environment and our communities as so many expendables.

With that in mind, LSP will continue to confer with our members on any “food safety” legislation that’s generated out of the Beltway. Stay tuned…

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