Bring on the Chemicals

For many small and organic farmers, techniques like planting cover crops and using compost to fertilize fields are essential to production—not to mention points of pride used in marketing. But in the wake of the E. coli spinach outbreak, some produce distributors are pressuring farmers to ditch these ecofriendly practices, the AP reported last week (via Accidental Hedonist).

Fresh Express, the biggest packaged-salad pusher in the United States, is now refusing to buy lettuce and spinach from farmers who use compost and recycled water, while other distributors say that the native grasses some farmers use to reduce erosion are bacteria traps and should be eliminated.

Of all those practices, only contaminated irrigation water has been fingered as a potential E. coli cause in the FDA’s latest report. But farmers quoted in the story argue that they constantly test their water, and that California’s agriculture industry would never survive without water reclamation. The FDA also identified raw, uncomposted manure as a likely contaminant—but researchers say that properly made compost doesn’t pose any danger. And as it happens, conventional farms are allowed to use raw manure willy-nilly, while certified organic farms are restricted to using it only long before crops are harvested.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Fresh Express’s organic line—and whether other small, sustainability-minded farmers will take their harvests to less reactionary companies.

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