Think back to a time before agriculture existed. Hawks pounced on squirrels, coyotes chased field mice and bison roamed the Great Plains. Thousands of insects randomly pollinated umpteen numbers of plants, all scattered around having developed specific adaptations to their little hobbits. It wasn’t always a happy place – plenty of ruthless natural selection was taking place – but the species evolved to coexist into a hodgepodge we now call biodiversity.
Then came Homo sapien. As super hunters, we first decimated the populations of any large animals we found in Africa. Nomadically, we spread out of the continent – largely driven by the desire to find more of these animals – but even way back when, our actions caused irreparable damage to the ecosystems we encountered. When we simply ran out of animals to attack, forced to the brink of starvation, we finally settled down into communities and start farming. Only then did agriculture truly begin.
It’s from that background we begin to examine a tough question – can biodiversity exist in a world of monocrop staples like corn and rice, amphibian crushing pesticides, and food safety protocols that explicitly make farmers keep sterile fields free of small animals? The answers are varied from those we have spoken to on the Nutrition Wonderland Tour of America.
Different Approaches, Methods
Sustainability has become such a hot marketing concept that it often gets detached from its meaning, so it helps to define what we are talking about here.
If you truly want to engage in the conservation of habitats before humanity ‘adjusted’ them, agriculture has no place. Sanctuaries and national parks serve that role, and perform an increasing important service in preserving these little oases. But that’s not what we are dealing with here says leading sustainable agriculture expert Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance.
We spoke with her in the agricultural hotspot of Watsonville, CA, home to some of the most productive lands in the world. Her non-profit helps farmers move towards sustainable agriculture methods, some of which surprised us.
She explains sustainable agriculture is about allowing farms becoming a part of their natural environments, while still maintaining their ability to help feed humanity. Growing smaller, more diverse crops, restoring natural filtering grasses and hedges for wildlife around the periphery, reducing or eliminating chemicals – and allowing animals different pathways between their native habitats is all part of this delicate balancing act.
Many of these methods come into direct conflict with food safety. Exactly how that developed requires us to wind back the clock a few years.
How Wildlife Became the Enemy of the Farm
In 2006, there was a well publicized outbreak of e.coli in the spinach grown in California, causing a dramatic loss of money for farmers, handlers and anyone involved with the leafy greens. No one is quite sure about what exactly caused the contamination, but the best guess we have is that the feces of a feral pig who was harboring the disease came into contact with some spinach in a field.
Without a concrete explanation at hand, legislative powers in Sacramento began to rumble about tightening the screws on the spinach trade. This led most major growers to sign onto the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), a codified set of enhanced food safety standards designed to keep your greens safe and sound. That was a pivotal moment for biodiversity on the farm Baumgartner explained, as habitat removal was drastically accelerated.
The source of the plight? A dirty buzzword among industry vets call supermetrics. This idea is promulgated by private buyers of leafy greens to distinguish certain operations which go beyond regular safety practices and meet a secret list of demands. A superficial look at these rules would make the whole thing seem like a laudable goal for every farmer. The reality though is quite different explained Diane Stuart, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz whose focus deals with the environmental impact of food safety legislation.
Supermetrics have become a key aspect wholesale buyers like grocery store chains use to determine from whom they will buy their crops. The tougher the standards, the more likely your crop is to sell. Consequently, farmers have ripped out native landscapes and hedges at an alarming rate.
Since the LGMA was put into place, the Monterey County Resource Conservation District office put together a survey of leafy greens growers and found that nearly 90% of all farmers questioned had removed a significant amount of native vegetation from their lands. This process is still going on today and it’s a never ending cycle added Stuart. If a farmer wants to sell his crop, he has to meet these standards. Failing to do so could literally mean the farm.
The Cost of Action, Inaction
The case for conservation of pristine habitats is known worldwide at this point, thanks to some very hard working individuals and organizations. But the idea of conserving nature on farms is still in its infancy.
The Wild Farm Alliance and a rag-tag collection of public interest groups are on the cutting edge of explaining this paradigm. Implementing reform takes the form of localized food systems that decentralize risk, developing biodiversity plans with farmers, farmer education and habitat restoration. Policy changes are also being contemplated with regard to agriculture, reflected in grumbling about the Farm Bill, food safety legislation and some new, aggressive USDA initiatives designed to get farmers to take better care of their lands.
Farming conservation grants are debuting this year at the USDA and they operate with similar logic to big industry. The name of the game is money, so consider the position financially. In economic terms, USDA needed to put a cost on an undesirable externality – in this case habitat destruction – and make that cost offset the lost value of the environment.
Its the same idea behind carbon ‘cap and trade’: heavy-handed government policy shaping land use patterns, anathema to the spirit of American agriculture. But with a projected population of 500 million by 2050 – the way we use land will change regardless. The idea sustainable farming advocates and now the USDA is to shape land use by smoothing out the impact agriculture has on the surrounding environment, a laudable goal much more funding needs to be directed into.
Is a New Way Even Possible?
But the real question is: just how safe do we want our food? What are we willing to lose in the process? Baumgartner put that question to us and its still ringing in our heads over here. Its not an easy question nor does it have a convenient answer.
Sustainable farming methods may not come at a large financial cost (although some definitely do), but the premises would require a sea change from consumers. The USDA can fund whatever it wants but most people want a bag of fresh greens and they want it safe. That choice writhes its way clear up to the farm – and the food system is responding with a product most people want, despite its environmental impact.
Are we willing to go back to heads of lettuce and bunches of spinach? For some, that answer is yes but for most its likely no. Diane Stuart explained how some processors are pioneering new techniques like irradiating the crops, using ozone and requiring more testing to ensure safety. But with large plants capable of processing 5000 bags per hour, there is inherently more risk. The air quality on airplane flights or the germs in a hospital immediately come to mind as examples.
Stuart was especially confident in the ability to change agriculture into a driving force for biodiversity in the environment but we are not so sure. We can adjust the processes all day long but if consumers continue to demand a super safe bag of spinach, someone out there is going to deliver it. Both experts we spoke with have excellent plans on how to get individual farms to use more sustainable methods but serious changes to the food system would be required to get there. For now, these changes impact fractions of a percentage of the farms that feed the US and the world – merely experiments on what could be.
Time will tell if we can reverse the trend of habitat destruction on farms in a substantial way and balance that with food safety measures. Decentralizing the food system as Stuart suggested would go a long way to ensuring one bad batch of food does not find its way across the entire country in a matter of days. Along with the habitat restoration technique, the tools we need to fix the problem are at hand now. The will to do so, however, remains illusive.
This is Nutrition Wonderland’s Tour of America – Day 4, Watsonville/Salinas/Santa Cruz, CA