Jake Cohen is a senior writer for The Nature Conservancy.
As we peruse the produce section of the supermarket, we’re ever-mindful of the prices we’re paying for fresh fruits and vegetables. But there’s another cost we rarely consider — the price of keeping that food safe and free from contaminants.
Is it worth the cost of making substantial changes to the healthy ecosystems that produce that food? And what if we’re not even getting what we’ve paid for? What if those environmental changes aren’t actually making our food any safer?
These are especially pressing questions in California’s Central Coast Region, which serves not only as America’s vegetable garden but also as a fragile key to the state’s environmental well-being.
And a recent report — spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy with funding from the Produce Safety Project, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University — suggests we need to think about how farms can produce healthy food and sustain the environment.
According to the study, farmers say they’re under increasing pressure from inspectors and food safety professionals to change the way they farm. They’re being forced to alter their farmlands in ways that could substantially harm local ecosystems, and for reasons that may not necessarily make the food on your plate any safer.
The number one priority is providing a safe product, but food safety and environmental conservation are not mutually exclusive. Standards that require farmers to remove wildlife and bodies of water from farms could result in serious impacts to clean water, clean air and healthy soils — and they could create public health implications of their own.
How do we improve those standards? The study suggests we use science to achieve a profitable and sustainable balance between producing safe food and conserving ecosystems.
In order to make this balance work — in order to reduce the pressure current standards place on farmers and the environment — we need science-based, rational and transparent standards. We need the kind of nuance that science provides. And, we need to get this message to national policymakers to ensure efforts underway in Congress don’t fix one public health problem by creating another.
These new standards will be crucial for the Central Coast Region, which produces 50 percent of the nation’s fresh-market vegetables and nearly 80 percent of its lettuce. If the area wants to continue the region’s legacy as a bastion of biodiversity and mecca for fresh food, it may be time for food policy to turn over a new leaf.
(Image credit: robplusjessie/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)