Farm practices meant to improve food safety should rely on science-based management approaches in order to conserve biodiversity in surrounding areas, a recent study suggests. Pressure from produce buyers to adopt additional precautions not mandated by government or industry may damage local ecosystems without clear increases in food safety, the study’s authors say.
The California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA), devised in response to a 2006 outbreak of illness related to Escherichia coli 0157:H7 in spinach, established standards to promote food safety in the industry. However, local farmers report pressure from major buyers to adopt additional precautions, including leaving large areas of bare ground as a border to separate leafy greens from wildlife habitat, according to the study by Sasha Gennet, PhD, and colleagues.
“In the short term, [these additional precautions] would be expensive for growers to implement, impact wildlife, and likely degrade other ecosystem benefits like air and water quality,” says Dr. Gennet in an email to Food Quality. “Over the long term, agricultural productivity is sustained by healthy ecosystems and processes, which could also be degraded by food safety practices that target wildlife above and beyond the level of risk they pose.”
The study, in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, describes the impact of these practices in one produce-growing region. The investigators found that 13.3 percent of remaining riparian habitat in the region was eliminated or degraded over a five-year period, and they estimated that if these practices were extended statewide across all crops, up to 40 percent of riparian habitat and 45 percent of wetlands would be affected.
“Using science-based risk management approaches, industry and researchers can develop food safety practices that minimize risk of contamination and collateral damage to ecosystems,” Dr. Gennet says. “There are organizations doing just that already, including California LGMA for standards, and Center for Produce Safety supporting top-notch research.” She suggests that these standards be adopted as best practices “that everyone agrees to implement but not go beyond.”
April Ward, communications director for the California LGMA, whose members include more than 100 handlers representing approximately 99 percent of the volume of California leafy greens, commented, “The co-management of farming practices that protect the food supply while recognizing their impact on environment is an important part of the LGMA program. We were very pleased to see the study’s lead author recognizing this.”