My latest article was accepted today, and will shortly be publicly available in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. My co-authors and I combine findings from three independent studies documenting farmer perceptions of food safety requirements in California’s Central Coast agricultural region (Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz counties). Focusing on food safety requirements to manage microbial threats from animals, natural habitat, soil amendments (compost), and water, we pair our observations with the latest scientific evidence on the extent to which each of these environmental media pose an actual risk to the safety of crops growing in fields.
Three primary insights emerged from our study. First, farmers perceive many nuances of practicing food safety on the farm that may not be recognized outside the agricultural community. Many of these relate to trade-offs and complications that arise between food safety and other goals of the farm, such as economic viability, environmental conservation, or simple job satisfaction. Farmers also identified reasonable doubts, from their perspective, about the way that they are told to practice food safety. For example, numerous farmers understood that some of what they are told to do is actually intended to reduce food safety risks, but other things they are told to do are more about their buyers trying to maintain a safe image or attempting to pass the ‘hot potato’ of accountability and liability in case something does go wrong.
Second, tensions persist between attempts to minimize food safety risks on farms and efforts to farm in an environmentally sustainable way. There is a strong and common message from food safety professionals to farmers that the natural environment is a source of danger. Economic pressures and fear of legal action amplify this message and cause farmers to approach the environment in a highly precautionary way. They tend to error on the side that a ‘cleaner’ farm–one with less vegetation and habitat–is a ‘safer’ farm. This is unfortunate, as the real story is much more complex. In some cases, recent research shows that a biodiverse environment (e.g. healthy soil microbiomes) may actually provide ecosystem services that reduce dangerous human pathogens in the farm. Farmers seem to intuitively believe this, but feel trapped in a system that only sees a zero-sum equation between the natural environment and food safety.
Last, increasingly more precautionary food safety requirements impact the socioeconomic sustainability of the Central Coast. In general, food safety practices impose additional costs to grow and harvest vegetables and fruits. But these costs don’t scale evenly with farm size, such that the smallest farms pay relatively more to comply with food safety requirements than do the largest farms. These costs aren’t all easily accountable. Some costs accrue from time spent keeping up-to-date with food safety requirements, filling out (a lot of) paperwork , cooperating with auditors/inspectors, and attending mandatory training sessions. There are also opportunity costs, which arise when time or money is spent on food safety requirements rather than on other farm priorities. All of these costs pose an incentive for small farms to leave agriculture, in which case they are bought up by larger farms, leading to land consolidation and economic concentration (fewer, larger companies). They also pose a barrier for new farmers to enter agriculture, because the start-up cost is much higher. Finally, language barriers and biases based on racial or ethnic profiling can disadvantage farmers of color or immigrant farmers, making it more difficult for them to comply with food safety requirements. The cumulative effect, we caution, may be further homogenization of Central Coast agriculture, which would be expected to have a negative impact on rural communities in the region.
These points are my rough summary of the actual paper, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my co-authors. Below I have reproduced the abstract, and you will soon be able to read the full article online.
Evolving food safety pressures in California’s Central Coast region
Elissa M. Olimpi1*, Patrick Baur2*, Alexandra Echeverri3, David Gonthier4, Daniel S. Karp1, Claire Kremen2, 3, 5, Amber Sciligo6 and Kathryn T. De Master2
- 1Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis, United States
- 2Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, United States
- 3Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, Faculty of Science, University of British Columbia, Canada
- 4Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky, United States
- 5Biodiversity Research Centre, University of British Columbia, Canada
- 6The Organic Center, United States
California’s Central Coast rose to national food safety prominence following a deadly 2006 outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 that was traced to spinach grown in this intensive agricultural region. Since then, private food safety protocols and subsequent public regulations targeting farm-level practices have developed extensively, aiming to avert future foodborne illness crises. However, amidst sweeping reforms in prescribed best practices for food safety, growers were pressured to take precautionary approaches to control pathogenic contamination—suppressing wildlife near fields, removing habitat, restricting biological soil amendments (e.g., compost, manure), and most recently, chemically treating irrigation water—that may generate negative unintended consequences for environmental and social sustainability. We synthesize socio-ecological data from three qualitative, interview-based studies to examine grower perceptions and experiences of food safety reforms in California’s Central Coast region and explore the effects of food safety regulations on environmental and socio-economic sustainability. We identify three disjunctures between food safety requirements and farming realities in practice: 1) Growers perceive that some food safety practices legitimately mitigate risk, while others fail to reduce or even accentuate risk; 2) Food safety requirements can create contradictions in the co-management of food safety and environmental sustainability; and 3) Food safety requirements may foster impediments to regional food systems socioeconomic sustainability. We argue that these disjunctures warrant changes in food safety policy, implementation, and/or food safety education. We provide concrete suggestions for shifting the focus of food safety reform away from the narrow surveillance of individual grower compliance and toward an integrated perspective on regional risk, vulnerability, and resilience.