What’s the Price of Safe Food?

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.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. If The Nature Conservancy and the Produce Safety Project are not already working with the Union of Concerned Scientists on this effort, I’d suggest that they check with the UCS regarding the possibility of a mutually helpful alliance on this issue. Part of the mission of the UCS is to provide the science on which appropriate standards can be based.

  2. Not enough relevant, accurate data. Paragraph 2: too many “what ifs”; P. 3: is this an opinion of only the California’s Central Coast Region??; P. 5: WHAT ways could substantially harm the “local” ecosystems? & in WHAT ways would it “NOT” make the food on our plates any safer??; P. 6: what do you mean “mutually exclusive” – isn’t that an oxymoron? Can’t be mutual & also exclusive! WHAT “standards” require farmers to remove bodies of water & wildlife from their farms? WHAT serious impacts could that have to clean water, clean air or healthy soils? What kind of public health implications of their own could they create?
    This is a generalized, opinionated – not fact based, one-sided “article”. It contains NO details that would allow a person to be able to make an intelligent decision about the validity or even common sense of this issue. Come back with a real story that contains facts, data, particulars, references, & studies. And to the readers of this article, please do your homework & get the facts before forming an opinion of your own on the topic. This serisously sounds like it was written by the chemical fertilizer & pesticide producers…think about it. Who would it benefit, hmmmmm.

  3. Concerns about vegetable growers facing conflicts between new food safety practices and natural resource protection have been covered extensively in the popular news and in peer-reviewed articles (for example: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/07/13/MN0218DVJ8.DTL and http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/food_safety&environmental_quality_impose_conflicting.pdf). Readers interested in digging deeper into this topic are welcome to peruse the Nature Conservancy’s full report “Safe and Sustainable: co-managing for food safety and ecological health in California’s Central Coast” to ‘get the facts.’ The direct link for the report is: http://www.producesafetyproject.org/admin/assets/files/wildlife.pdf. Posted by The Nature Conservancy’s Central Coast-Monterey Project Director, Christina Fischer.

  4. Thanks, Christine, that link was very helpful.

Add a Comment