Co-managing biodiversity conservation and food safety on organic farms


Coordinator: Jo Ann Baumgartner, Wild Farm Alliance, Watsonville, California
Stakeholders: Organic producers in the U.S.

Since the 2006 contamination of spinach with the E. coli 0157:H7, many buyers in the leafy greens industry are misguidedly requiring farm landscapes to be sterile, allowing nothing but the crop to be present. This approach is now spreading beyond the leafy greens industry to other commodities and farms. While this may appear to be a good marketing strategy, the decree for no wildlife or beneficial habitat is not based on science, since wildlife have not been found to be a significant risk.

A recent report from the California Department of Fish and Game and others found that of 866 individual animals tested for E. coli 0157:H7, only one half of one percent tested positive: one feral pig, one coyote, and two elk were found with the pathogen. Several other studies report wildlife have a low incidence of carrying E. coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella, although some researchers have found that wildlife near polluted areas, such as sewage outfalls or confined animal feeding operations, can carry these pathogens at higher levels. Most are in agreement that cattle are the major multiplier of E. coli 0157:H7 on the landscape, and that feral pigs may also be significant vectors of food borne pathogens.

Researchers have shown that wetlands and grasses filter pathogens such as E. coli. Hedgerows, windbreaks, grasses and riparian vegetation are natural filters of dust- and water-borne pathogens. Biodiversity is valued on organic farms to support wildlife and to enhance systems management of water, pests and diseases, and soil fertility. In fact, the National Organic Program requires biodiversity conservation on organic farms.

These recent conflicts between food safety mandates and on-farm conservation practices have made it more important than ever to help organic farmers, wholesalers and agricultural resource professionals understand how conservation and food safety can be co-managed.

Food safety need not be at odds with conservation-based agriculture. Organic farmers have long known that a soil with diverse microorganisms results in less plant pathogens. The same concept is true when it comes to human pathogens. Soils having a diverse microbial community have increased competition and can reduce persistence of pathogens.

The purpose of this project is to create an urgently needed organic farmer guide, Co-Managing Biodiversity Conservation and Food Safety on Organic Farms, that addresses cultural practices and issues which affect the compatibility of food safety and biodiversity conservation. With this guide, organic farmers will be able to comply with various food safety requirements, many of which are causing confusion and unnecessary habitat destruction on organic farms, while meeting the national Organic Program rule to conserve biodiversity.

Publishing and distributing this guide will advance organic farm practices compatible with food safety guidelines and legal organic requirements for biodiversity conservation.

Project objectives are to:

  • Provide organic farmers with the information they need to make informed decisions on practices and actions that address food safety and biodiversity conservation conflicts.
  • Share Co-Managing Biodiversity Conservation and Food Safety on Organic Farms guide with organic farmers and wholesalers.
  • Provide the guide to USDA and other resource professionals.