Balancing Conservation and Food Safety on Organic Farms

Karen Adler's picture


The practices of conserving and fostering biodiversity and natural resources are at the heart of organic farming, and are part of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). At the same time, ensuring that the food we eat is safe is an obvious priority for farmers and consumers alike. Conflicts that have emerged between these important goals make it critical for organic farmers to understand how they can be co-managed. OFRF is gratified to fund resources that help farmers find this balance.

When news of E. coli-contaminated spinach hit the headlines in 2006 and sent shock-waves through the produce industry, it launched a torrent of misguided responses. Obviously, everybody wanted the food supply to be safe, but some of the early consequences included the removal of conservation plantings such as hedgerows, windbreaks, and grassed waterways, and the destruction of riparian areas and wetlands. These responses also created confusion on how organic farmers and ranchers would continue to comply with the National Organic Program rule to conserve biodiversity, and maintain or improve their soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife.

Thanks to support from Organic Farming Research Foundation and others, Wild Farm Alliance tackled these issues, in collaboration with Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), to provide research-based information and practical resources for farmers and ranchers, as well as produce buyers and food safety professionals and regulators. The result is the publication of three outstanding resources on the co-management of food safety and conFarming with Food Safety and Conservation in Mind servation:

Research shows that wetlands and grasses filter pathogens such as E.coli, and provide many other benefits, including soil and water conservation, and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. These publications feature information on how farmers can produce safe food without sacrificing conservation practices and natural areas such as riparian habitat or other non-crop vegetation.

Meanwhile, as part of the regulatory push for improved food safety, The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which is the first major overhaul of U.S. food safety practices since 1938, has become a source of concern and debate in farming communities around the country due to the potential of proposed regulations to curtail common practices, such as farm-made fertilizers and using creeks for irrigation. Cathy Carlson, the food safety manager for CAFF, points out that most farmers are already engaged in food safety practices. She works with farmers to develop their food safety plans, and has found that one of the key elements for creating an effective plan is for farmers to record their practices. “Whatever you are doing, write it down,” she says. Certified organic farms are especially on track, as the certification process ensures that at least two or three of the items that make up a food safety plan are already in place.

Cathy includes a copy of A Farmer’s Guide to Food Safety and Conservation in the binders that she provides to farmers, and reports that they find it to be very valuable.

To date, more than three thousand organic and sustainable farmers, as well as numerous FDA staffers, and agriculture professionals, have been provided with these publications, receiving them through organic certifiers, sustainable agriculture nonprofit organizations, workshops, and meetings.


On-Farm Food Safety and Conservation Webinar on April 15

In addition to downloading and reading these publications, you can attend a free webinar about co-managing food safety and conservation in specialty crops by increasing your understanding about the fate and transport of food-borne pathogens, and about multiple conservation and food safety practices that, when used together, can minimize food safety concerns.

Presented by Jo Ann Baumgartner, Executive Director of Wild Farm Alliance; author of Farming with Food Safety and Conservation in Mind, and co-author of A Farmer’s Guide to Food Safety and Conservation.

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