Growing Healthy Food on Healthy Farms

Mike Sweeney is executive director of The Nature Conservancy in California. This post originally appeared in Huffington Post Green. You can follow Mike on Twitter: @mppsweeney.

Growing our food in the dirt in the open air, as we’ve been doing since the dawn of agriculture, comes with some risks. They’re rare, but they’re there.

The spinach E. coli outbreak that happened quite a few years ago is one example. It made national news and sparked a well-intentioned, but drastic reaction, including a literal scorched-earth approach to lands surrounding farms.

For sure, the consequences of foodborne illness can be devastating, and we need to deal with the problem. But a smart, science-based approach can help us make sure our response actually addresses the sources of risk, and doesn’t create more problems than it solves. The FDA is working on new produce safety rules (due to be released this spring) that are a great opportunity to be thoughtful about the connection between our food and the land it’s grown on.

There are countless benefits to having farms nested in natural landscapes. Natural landscapes produce healthy pollinators such as bees. They filter runoff and sediment from agricultural fields before they pollute our rivers. And they can serve as windbreaks that keep dust out of the air and out of local lungs. These are among the pretty well-known upsides to having farms close to nature, and we’ve been benefiting from them since we discovered agriculture.

But it turns out some people think nature is dirty. In the past, produce buyers and retailers have responded to foodborne illness outbreaks by demanding new food-safety practices on farms aimed at keeping wildlife out. Some leafy-green buyers, for example, have driven growers to clear all vegetation around farms — “bare earth buffers,” they call them. Other practices include putting poison bait stations in and around fields, poisoning ponds, and even building fences that keep out frogs. Likewise, many growers are being forced to abandon long-standing conservation measures like recycling irrigation water and restoring streams.

Buyers and producers all want to do the right thing and address a real issue. But while these sorts of tactics might make it look like we’re addressing the problem, we don’t even know if they work. In many cases it’s not been established that wild animals are the source of the problem in the first place. The practices are also very expensive, especially for small farmers. It’s essentially a “shock and awe” approach to a problem that requires a lot more precision. We need to be thoughtful and driven by actual science and data that show precisely where food-safety hazards and risks come from — and how best to mitigate them.

In the Salinas Valley on California’s central coast, we’re figuring out how to grow food safely, without unraveling the entire ecosystem. Salinas is a farming powerhouse. Any salad greens you eat most likely come from that valley. What we learn there can affect farming across the country. The Nature Conservancy helped develop a report called “Safe and Sustainable: Co-managing for Food Safety and Ecological Health in California’s Central Coast Region.” It recommends that we use science to figure out the best ways to improve food safety while keeping the environment healthy. With smart approaches, we can reduce the risk of foodborne illness and avoid unnecessarily degrading the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health of all living things in the landscape: people, wildlife, and plants.

These new food-safety rules are really important, and I hope the FDA takes a thoughtful approach. In the meantime, it’s still important to wash your fruits and vegetables like you always do.

[Image source: woodleywonderworks/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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