Daily News Archive
From December 21, 2006                                                                                                        

Food Processors Discourage Environmental Farm Programs
(Beyond Pesticides, December 21, 2006) With rising concerns of food-born illness and bacterial contamination spreading by way of highly centralized food processing facilities, food processors are clamping down on farmers to do away with environmental programs, which they, despite evidence to the contrary, believe lead to unnecessary potential exposure to contaminants. Under specific scrutiny by food processing companies are environmental programs intended to reduce pesticide and fertilizer runoff and increase biodiversity through the planting of grassy, wildlife habitats or hedgerows along agricultural fields.

For years, processors have put pressure on farmers to practice “clean farming techniques,” which preclude the use of grassy corridors because of fears that these habitat zones might attract animals that carry bacteria like E. coli or salmonella. Instead of grassy habitats, processors promote “clean” bare earth around agricultural fields to discourage wildlife, though this type of farming promotes erosion and chemical runoff pollution, as well as disrupting carbon sequestration. Alternatively, if farmers demand to keep their hedgerows, processors now require they set out baited traps to kill rodents and other potential carriers of bacteria.

As one Salinas valley grower described, "When we plant hedgerows now, we have to use the bait stations or we lose our contracts," he said. "Later, you see birds of prey perched over the bait. They eat mice sluggish from the poison and get poisoned themselves. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of putting in the habitat."

Since the E. coli contamination of spinach from Central California that occurred earlier this year, killing three and sickening 200, and more recently the sickening of more than 70 people exposed to E. coli after eating at East Coast Taco Bell restaurants, processors have moved from concern to panic. For them, being associated with contaminated food can mean financial disaster. As the Salinas farmer explained, “The people who put their names on produce bags having the most to lose. One association with a pathogen and they can lose their brand."

Now processors are visiting farms and producing food safety field-audits, which University of California, Davis agricultural extension research specialist Trevor Suslow says have a chilling effect on habitat programs. “[A processor representative] will come out and look at a field and possibly give a certain [area] a negative score because environmental projects such as wetlands or filter strips were nearby," Suslow said. "So the message is, if you want to sell to Company X, you'll take out the projects."

Preliminary studies indicate that processors are misdirecting their efforts to curb contamination by focusing on wildlife habitat programs. An analysis from University of California, Santa Cruz concludes that the strain of bacterium associated with the recent spinach poisonings -- E. coli 0157:H7 -- is rare in wild birds and mammals, and resides most abundantly in the digestive tracts of grain-fed cattle. Instead of targeting farm wildlife programs, these studies indicate that addressing the conditions of animal feedlot operations, whose runoff contaminates the irrigation systems of farms downstream, would be a more effective means of reducing bacterial contamination.

Ideally, all farming in the U.S. would move towards growing organic, chemical-free food to sustain local communities and move away from the chemically-dependant agricultural model that uses highly-centralized processing and distribution plants. Until then, farmers should be allowed to mitigate the negative environmental effects of their practices with environmental programs, and agribusiness should figure out a more productive way of addressing bacterial contamination.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

TAKE ACTION: NBC’s Today Show ran a segment recently that paints organic food as unsafe, leaving the impression that conventional chemically grown food is better. Help set the record straight on misperceptions over organic farming practices and food by asking the Today Show to get the facts right.