News from the Farm | March 3, 2014

Food Safety

Think for a moment about the complex chain of connections that brought the egg to your plate this morning – the sausage, potatoes or tofu that may have accompanied it – or the garnish of parsley, tomato or spinach that found its way to your table. Think about the dazzling display of produce offered in most every grocery store today.  Its abundance, low cost, and safety should be hailed as an incredible example of a ‘modern’ food system. Literally millions of meals are served every day with few issues. We enjoy abundance derived from a very complex system of production, processing, packaging and delivery that is often international in scope 

Yet, across California’s vast and productive agricultural landscape there is a profound change taking place. The traditional role of a farmer as a steward – responsible for not only the production of abundant fresh and safe fruits and vegetables, but also the larger ecological well-being of the land –  is being usurped by clean field/ clean edge practices. Non-crop trees are being chopped down; field borders are being herbicided clean to bare earth; all rodents, ground squirrels, wild turkeys, deer, birds and farm dogs are being seen as potential carriers of pathogens that might find their way into our food supply.

The changes proposed by the Food Safety and Modernization Act and the new proposed rules by the FDA are striking. I don’t remember, in my 6o years around farming, a change that might be more profound or more disastrous in the long term. The reality that farms are living biological entities is being set aside with the notion of sterility as a desirable goal. 

The FDA has targeted the pathogenic microbes that have created serious and tragic health issues over the past ten years. E-coli 0157H7, virulent forms of Listeria, and Salmonella have incriminated all of agriculture despite the record. The War on Terror has spawned a parallel pre-emptive mentality about the potential hazards or bacterial terror in all food – so that action has been demanded by consumers to identify and eliminate potential sources of contamination. It is important and critical work to identify high risk sources of potential contamination and develop traceability for products that travel long distances to multiple states; have many points of possession and of potential contamination; are sourced and co-mingled from multiple farms; or have a long period of time from field to table.  Unfortunately, the rule is being driven by assumptions about biological hazards often without real data about the targets. 

The collateral damage from these new rules will be ecological diversity, small farms, emerging local food systems, innovative new sustainable models of food production and a fundamental sensibility about the real biological systems that are the foundation of all agriculture. The FDA acknowledges a much greater impact on small farms to comply with the rule – up to 6% of gross income to comply with monitoring, fencing and paperwork. But by far the greatest tragedy will be a further concentration of the food industry and the lost opportunity to look at our farms and ask more complex question – how do we invest, farm to table, in generating healthier outcomes.

Can agriculture do better to identify and make safer high-risk activities? Certainly. Should all farmers, regardless of size, be informed about the basic sanitation needed for healthier outcomes? Certainly. The FDA interpretation of what science they will choose to target potential pathogens in our food system, requires new focus – a whole system analysis that needs to ask the question about practices that will create healthier outcomes. Fundamental questions that will be central to the development of healthier outcomes include: How to grow healthier soil and plants that resist pathogens with their basic health and the role of animals as cyclers of nutrients and converters of sunlight into food and energy.

We need to look far deeper at our place as an individual ecosystem in a community of ecosystems. We need to understand the conflict in the demands for safe food while we argue for cheaper foods, dropping the burden of cheaper production upon farmers. We need to realize that the less than 1% of our population that farms have both dominion above and responsibility for food safety in balance with stewardship of our deeper rural ecology for many generations to come. The many American farms that have failed economically over the past 100 years have not passed away from one cut – but from 1000 cuts. The FSMA, as the FDA is interpreting it, will indeed be a deep cut. The toll may result in the further diminishment of rural America and farmers of all scales.

— Paul Muller