Is an antiseptic field of greens possible – and is it something that we really even want?
In the aftermath of several food safety scares involving crops like spinach, peppers and sprouts, customers are demanding that farmers meet stringent standards to protect them from food-borne diseases like salmonella and E. coli. But those standards are forcing organic farmers to rip out vegetative borders around fields that filter storm water and harbor beneficial insects, which are an alternative to pesticides. And it doesn’t stop there. Perfectly good crops and ponds have been destroyed in the name of food safety.
Just ask Dick Peixoto, an organic farmer who had to remove hedges of fennel and flowering cilantro to please customers who demanded sterile buffers around his crops. Vegetation, water and wildlife of any kind are prohibited, and that means taking radical action if an animal so much as brushes up against a crop.
"I was driving by a field where a squirrel fed off the end of the field, and so 30 feet in we had to destroy the crop," he said. "On one field where a deer walked through, didn't eat anything, just walked through and you could see the tracks, we had to take out 30 feet on each side of the tracks and annihilate the crop."
With food safety legislation moving through Congress, these standards are about to go national, forcing industrial farming methods on organic farmers when industrial agriculture itself may be the culprit for food safety woes.
Food guru Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, has long been a proponent of smaller-scale farming and recently spoke of its benefits in the documentary 'Food, Inc.'
"Sanitizing American agriculture, aside from being impossible, is foolhardy. You have to think about what's the logical end point of looking at food this way. It's food grown indoors hydroponically."
While the goal of food safety legislation, such as the bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), is honorable – preventing unnecessary deaths from foodborne pathogens – some argue that it’s overreaching and may even be counterproductive. UC Davis scientists found that vegetation buffers can remove as much as 98 percent of E. coli from surface water, and warned that some rodents prefer cleared areas.
Dr. Andy Gordus, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game who worked on a two-year study of E. coli in animals, says the demands of some customers are unrealistic.
"It's all based on panic and fear, and the science is not there.”