Farmers experience tension between wildlife conservation and food safety risk management

Photo Credit: Divide_by_zero

In an effort to ensure food is free from harmful pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses, food safety regulations have become increasingly stringent, especially for fresh produce. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems identified that large-scale food safety reforms are causing tension for farmers who believe that while many required practices may indeed reduce food safety risks, they can also reduce environmental sustainability, particularly when wildlife populations are constrained.

Federal and buyer regulations can imply that farmers should reduce wildlife intrusion on the farm to reduce the risk of wildlife spreading harmful pathogens like E. coliSalmonella, and Listeria. This often results in practices that prevent wildlife from entering the farm, such as fencing or practices that eliminate wildlife if they do enter the farm. Currently there is no scientific evidence that suggests wildlife on the farm increases the risk of food safety. Instead, a growing body of science suggests the opposite—that more biodiversity reduces the occurrence of foodborne illness pathogens.

Many farmers recognize the benefits that wildlife can provide such as natural pest control and overall ecosystem balance, and report feeling tension between excluding wildlife for food safety regulations and allowing important natural processes to occur on the farm. Practices that reduce wildlife are also in direct conflict with National Organic Program requirements for organic certification as farmers must to support and increase biodiversity for compliance.

This study synthesized three socio-ecological studies with extensive interviews of farmers in the “salad bowl” region of California, where farmers are subject to some of the most stringent food safety regulations. The take-home message from these interviews is that food safety regulations can cause direct conflict between environmental values and risk mitigation. The authors recommend that regulations be revisited and reformed to change the focus from individual grower compliance to a more “integrated perspective on regional risk, vulnerability and resilience to risks from human foodborne pathogens.