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Know the West

Fields of overkill

Conservation, farmers scorched by food safety concerns


SALINAS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA - In California's verdant Salinas Valley, the tangles of trees and shrubs that once bordered the fields of leafy greens are disappearing. Chain-link fences now barricade the Salinas River as it flows through the nation's salad bowl. In early April, a small lake that once sheltered migratory birds and insects beneficial to farmers had been reduced to a bulldozed pit; by the end of the month, it had disappeared completely. Like the vanishing trees and hedgerows, the pond was another victim of food-safety measures gone awry.

After an E. coli outbreak in 2006 was traced to tainted spinach, the leafy greens industry and big corporate buyers like McDonald's and Wal-Mart responded with an array of tough new standards for growing spinach and lettuce. Packaged produce has been the culprit in the majority of outbreaks linked to leafy greens; those who fell sick or died in the 2006 outbreak had eaten bagged spinach from a single processing plant in California owned by Natural Selection Foods. Still, native vegetation and waterways that provide habitat for deer, birds and other wildlife were suddenly seen as health threats by those high up on the corporate food chain.

Pushed by inspectors and buyers, leafy greens growers on California's Central Coast are sterilizing their fields, ripping out wildlife habitat and putting up fences. Often, the farmers' contracts and livelihoods are at stake. "Growers have been told to cut down trees on family farms that have been around for 50 years," says Kirk Schmidt, executive director of Central Coast Water Quality Preservation.

And it's not just farmers and wildlife that are losing out - the excessive measures are changing farms in ways that could actually make our food supply less safe. "Buyers are taking advantage of food safety to get a competitive edge," says Joseph McIntyre, facilitator of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment. "They're putting pressure on growers toward practices that may not have food safety benefits, as well as (cause) unintended consequences."

The 2006 E. coli outbreak happened just as the federal Food and Drug Administration was working with the agricultural industry to come up with new guidelines for growing and handling leafy greens. The tainted spinach killed three people, sickened over 200 others, and cost spinach growers more than $70 million. FDA advisories over an eight-day period effectively shut down the spinach industry and had a long-term impact on leafy greens sales - and on the way growers manage their farms.

For years, farmers in the Salinas Valley and beyond had worked with state and federal resource agencies to implement ecologically friendly practices. But a spring 2007 survey by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County showed such practices are changing. Of 181 respondents, who farm a total of 140,000 acres on the Central Coast, 89 percent said that they had adopted at least one measure to keep wildlife out of their fields.

The survey indicated that the lettuce and spinach growers are facing tremendous pressure from auditors and buyers. Nearly one-third of leafy greens growers said auditors encouraged them to remove vegetation, and almost one-half were urged to remove or trap wildlife. In many cases, the growers complied. Growers said they lost points on their audits if deer or frogs were present in the fields, and buyers sometimes rejected their crops altogether - thousands of dollars' worth in some cases. (Deer have been known to carry E. coli, although their role in transmitting disease to humans is insignificant compared to that of cattle.)

One organic produce grower, who prefers to remain anonymous, notes that the industry term for habitat - "harborage" - implies that wildlife is a threat to the farm. "The most unscrupulous retailers are essentially advocating a 'scorched earth' policy for areas near vegetable fields," he says.

At the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), program coordinator Sam Earnshaw has been encouraging Central Coast farmers to plant hedgerows since the late 1990s. Plants like flowering yarrow and lilacs may appear untidy next to orderly rows of lettuce, but they protect the crops from soil erosion and filter out blowing dust. They also house helpful critters, such as wasps that destroy crop-eating caterpillars. Now, however, growers are pulling those hedgerows out.

"Food safety inspectors don't understand that hedgerows support beneficial insects," says Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the nonprofit group Wild Farm Alliance, which has been using aerial photos and reports on the ground to track the removal of shrubs and trees. "They say, 'Get rid of the weeds.' "

In the Salinas Valley, white PVC pipes used to trap rodents are now common along the edges of fields. Fencing is increasingly used to deter deer, and vegetation along the edges of fields is being removed, creating bare earth buffers.

"It may or may not have logic beyond the legal departments of large buyers," says Schmidt. "Some want a swath of dirt 20, 30, or 40 feet on the edge of fields to keep the mice out. A mouse is not slowed down by 40 feet of dirt."

Neither is E. coli. Although the exact route of transmission has not been identified in the 2006 E. coli outbreak, the FDA's report points to cattle feces from the nearby ranch, feral pigs or river water as possible mechanisms. Cattle are the primary carriers of the virulent strain of E. coli 0157:H7 responsible for the outbreak. And bare earth buffers may actually increase the risk of transmission. University of California researchers tested the capacity of grassland buffers to reduce E. coli in runoff containing cattle feces, and their 2006 report indicated that the grasses were effective in reducing contamination across a range of landscape and rainfall scenarios.

Vegetation planted in waterways and alongside fields not only reduces pathogens like E. coli but also promotes the uptake and degradation of fertilizers and pesticides, explains Jill Wilson, environmental scientist at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. "We want to see water quality programs and food safety practices coexist," she says.

Efforts to regulate leafy greens production have been a mixed bag, with varying degrees of scientific and public scrutiny. While the FDA has authority to step in after E. coli outbreaks, it does not routinely inspect produce in the field. In the wake of the 2006 outbreak, the Western Growers Association took the lead in creating the California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement. With 99 percent of handlers signed on, the advisory board oversaw the development of "good agricultural practices" or metrics, standards for growing and handling produce. California's Department of Food and Agriculture audits growers to ensure they follow those standards.

"The standards don't require that you manage the land any different than you have for generations," says Joe Pezzini, chair of the LGMA advisory board. The latest version, revised after criticism from environmental groups, includes a clause indicating that "fencing, vegetation removal, and destruction of habitat" may harm the environment. In fact, it instructs growers to check government regulations before taking actions that alter habitat.

So why are growers yanking out vegetation and putting up fences? David Runsten, executive director of CAFF, believes that the problem lies not with the metrics sanctioned by the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, but with buyers who impose their own arbitrary - and often excessive - standards, so-called "super metrics." "They're competing with each other," he says. " 'If you have a 30-foot buffer, I'll have a 100-foot. If you have them build a 3-foot fence, I'll want a 6-foot fence.' "

For the growers, it means a dizzying array of rules imposed by the handlers who buy their produce. "It's really annoying to have to destroy habitat, I mean, harborage," the anonymous grower says with a wry smile. One auditor wanted him to have a 50-foot buffer of bare earth, not realizing the benefits of hedgerows. And the grower knows he will have to put in fences to keep the buyers happy, despite the prohibitive costs.

"These buyers are so powerful, but nobody talks about the super metrics," says Schmidt. Companies adopting such measures have kept their rulebooks from public scrutiny. Part of the problem is the corporate - and the consumer's - perception of risks. Laura Giudici Mills, director of food and workplace safety for Metz Fresh, points out that it's one thing to deal with contamination from pathogens like E. coli, and another to find foreign material such as seed pods and even frog parts in a package of leafy greens. Fencing may help keep unwanted delicacies out of the salad bowl, but getting rid of beneficial insects and habitat in the name of food safety is a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

"The super metrics don't want any animal intrusion," says Pezzini. "We have to get out and educate these buyers that the farm is an integrated system."

Today's small farmer often feels like David vs. Goliath - the interests of industrial agriculture and huge corporations dominate both the marketplace and public policy. The new Farm Bill had provisions for regulating food safety through industry-based measures, but these were cut out in the legislation passed by Congress in May.

Kira Pascoe, CAFF's family farm food safety coordinator, pointed out that most of the attention gets focused on crops in the field even though processing seems to be to blame for the recent disease outbreaks - particularly packaged convenience foods such as ready-to-eat spinach. Processed products were implicated in 98.5 percent of illnesses caused by E. coli in California leafy greens, according to a CAFF analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

In the 2006 outbreak, processing procedures failed to detect or remove the virulent bacteria contaminating the spinach. A March 2008 congressional report delivered a harsh indictment of the FDA's lack of oversight of processing facilities for packaged fresh spinach. Repeated violations at the company's plant in Yuma, Ariz., received nothing more than FDA calls for "voluntary action" - which were subsequently ignored.

The cumulative impacts of fencing and habitat removal have escaped environmental analysis as well. The California Environmental Quality Act requires public agencies to assess the environmental impact of land use. If the California Department of Food and Agriculture had created the leafy greens standards, says Runsten, such analysis would have been performed. In the wake of the E. coli outbreak, though, the state agency acted quickly, allowing the Western Growers Association to develop metrics. But those industry-defined standards aren't subject to the Environmental Quality Act's requirements - and neither are the super metrics imposed by buyers.

While the big players are setting de facto food safety standards, small growers concerned about habitat destruction want public safeguards. Pezzini hopes the LGMA metrics will become an industry-wide standard. Baumgartner and other farm advocates say there should be a ceiling on all metrics to prevent them from spiraling beyond reason. The science shows that food safety and conservation can go hand-in-hand. Now it's up to consumers and corporate buyers to accept farming in its natural environment, where hedgerows, ponds and wildlife make good neighbors - rather than bare dirt and fences.

"Consumers need to tell their retailers," says Baumgartner, "that they do not want pre-packaged leafy greens to be produced at the expense of wildlife and at the risk to human health."

Li Miao Lovett writes about cultural and environmental issues from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her forthcoming novel, In the Lap of the Gods, portrays the lives of Chinese displaced by the Three Gorges dam.