Farming is nothing if not a set of relationships with living things, and the usual list of intimacies include the farmer and her cow, the farmer and her chicken, and so on. But who ever thinks of the farmer and her toad? Certainly this duo, echoed in fables about princesses, is as old as any working partnership since Adam and Eve.
You may soon be hearing a lot more, though, about the relationship of biped and pest-devouring amphibian. That’s because a very modern, indeed industrial-strength, issue involves the toad as metaphorical avian: the canary in the coal mine. As farmlands around the world have become more and more industrialized and saturated with toxic pesticides and herbicides, the toads (along with other amphibians) have been undergoing changes perhaps unprecedented in their previous hundred million years of evolution. In many cases, they’re wiped out by loss of habitat and food sources. But in one of scariest scenarios, they’ve become shapeshifters. Researchers, as Environmental Health Perspectives reported last year, say synthetic chemicals in the environment are acting like estrogen hormones, and these are “feminizing” male toads to the point where up to 40 percent of them in a given location can be classified “intersex.”
The EHP study, looking at cane toads in selected study sites in Florida, found numerous individuals with “as many female characteristics as… male,” including “an equal presence of both testes and ovary” and similar abnormalities. So what does this mean for us and the food on our table? Obviously, the implications are not appetizing. But what has been agribusiness’s response to the herpetological crisis? In one odd turn of events, it’s been to “exterminate all the brutes” by excluding them from agricultural habitats altogether.This has been just one of the perverse outcomes of misdirected attempts to cleanse the food system – specifically the production of leafy greens – of pathogens, in the wake of coliform (E. coli 0157:H7) contamination that in 2006 sickened hundreds of consumers in 26 states and one Canadian province and killed several people. The contamination, which was traced to highly localized sources in California, set off a continental panic, and the food industry and regulators scrambled to prevent further outbreaks. The presence of this virulent strain of E. coli (other strains of the bacteria are found in the human gut and are essential for digestion) might lead to many sources, of course – most obviously including fecal matter from feedlots – and obvious traditional methods to keep manure residues off our food. But one method, which amounts to a latter-day purification rite, involves excluding all the canaries from the coal mine.
How, and why? Briefly, the regulators and agro-industrialists have decreed that the toads and frogs, snakes and lizards, small mammals and other newly-designated interlopers are unacceptable vectors of disease and must be kept out of the vegetable patch by any means necessary. A PowerPoint put together by the Wild Farm Alliance (www.wildfarmalliance.org) presents images from the heartland that are reminiscent of Stalag 13: high-tech fencing and ground-level barriers “used to reduce foreign objects (frogs and field rodents);” closely spaced “rodent bait/trap stations” atop berms at the edges of cultivated fields; and instances of the outright removal of natural features and incidental habitats like tree lines, hedgerows, and farm ponds to deny shelter to various creeping critters.
Nor are small mammals and “herps” like toads the only targets; some safety protocols are designed to exclude large animals like deer – though admittedly farmers have good reason in any case to keep cute but leaf-hungry Bambi out of the patch. But the real irony has to do with grander concepts: if any animals pose a threat of bacterial contamination in vegetable fields, it’s those hundreds or even thousands of ruminants kept in “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), immense industrial farms that produce and willy-nilly discharge E. coli-containing fecal matter to neighboring farms and ecosystems.
The truth is, when it comes to soiling the soil, wildlife can’t remotely compete with domesticated herds housed in the ag-equivalent of concentration camps. Cows, of course, have not traditionally been the enemy. But the new industrial methods of dairy production have exacerbated – concentrated – the growth of the pathogenic E. coli 0157:H7, and federal policymaking is not addressing the toxic run-off, literally or figuratively, of CAFOs and corporate agribusiness. A statement by Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, tells why the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture are looking the other way in this case. These agencies, says Libby, are not interested in regulations “to eliminate the [pathogenic] bacteria from the system, because that would mean challenging the notion of feed-lots and grain-fed beef [and by extension, dairy cows]. Instead, their idea is to isolate vegetable production from livestock to eliminate cross-contamination.”
Specifically, the regulatory agencies want to promulgate “Good Agricultural Practices” (GAP) protocols that will in turn impose paperwork and other burdens on small and large farms alike. Some of these GAP requirements are Cleanliness 101: handwashing, etc. But some new requirements could be more than inconveniences. For example, Libby explains, if you’re a farmer who fails to completely segregate animal operations from the farm’s crop fields, you could get a “deduction” of points from your GAP certification score. Lose enough points, and you’re out of business.But on top of this, what happens on neighboring farms can cost you, too. In some scenarios, any livestock on farms within two miles of your own farm can lead to deductions. The regulators seem to have added a GAP escape clause for small farmers: the certification program is “voluntary.” But realistically, if you hope to sell produce to major purchasers, including the national school lunch program and the Defense Department, you’ll find that voluntary can smell a lot like mandatory.
The supposed safety regimes can backfire in other ways. At a late November “Food Safety War on Wildlife Teach-In” in Watsonville, California, representatives of the WFA and allied groups testified how the new regimes could harm humans as well as cause collateral damage among animals. They pointed to some examples that should be obvious to consumers: for example, many shoppers have grown fond of bagged salad greens, in part because the bag seems to provide a barrier to contamination. But just the opposite is true. As WFA director Jo Ann Baumgartner told the conferees, “The bag itself is a micro-incubator; many cut leaf surfaces increase areas of infection, and the washing of thousands of pounds of greens at a time can spread pathogens to scores of consumers.”
This problem – and it’s surely not the only problem associated with plastic bags – indicates that the USDA and FDA and others need to address things not covered by existing GAPs. First, they need to look at the principal source of pathogenic bacteria: industrial feedlots and the mountains of poorly-managed manure produced there. In general, says Dave Runsten, director of the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, the key is “focusing on problem areas, such as the processed leafy green product and its handling in transport and retail, rather than imposing blanket and unscientific rules on farmers.”
Observers and advocates like Runsten point to a special concern: that the new safety regimes, which will hit small farmers hard, will be especially burdensome, even fatal, for organic farms. That’s because some GAP proposals, like one that would require farmers to pre-wash their greens in chemicalized (e.g. substantially chlorinated) water rather than pure well or spring water, violate basic organic principles. (Many organic farmers and consumers prefer that produce not be pre-washed at all – in other words, that it bear traces of the living soil in which it was grown.)Part of the life of the soil is, of course, each congenial organism that lives in it and from its bounty. Like the toad. But if this living matrix is to be preserved it will take a bureaucratic and marketing battle that requires shortening the supply lines. This will be attainable, according to Patty Lovera of the Washington-based group Food and Water Watch, through grassroots production and distribution. On this point, Lovera, who recently addressed the annual convention of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, emphasizes that safe food systems require “traceability,” to track pathogen outbreaks and prevent future ones. And nothing, she says, provides easier traceability than “direct chains” between small producers and vendors, which implies the systematic cultivation of local farmers markets and the growth of restaurants that buy and serve local, fresh (and preferably organic) greens.This sort of chain is indeed the safest as well as the shortest distance between two points – for herp and human like.