Inside Organics Blog

Sterile landscape not solution to feeding world

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Challenges to our food system continue to grab headlines—avian influenza, bacteria in meat, contaminated produce, herbicide-resistant weeds. To manage these challenges, the non-organic world seems to want to sterilize our landscape and food production system. Organic farmers know that strong immune systems in plants and animals are built through challenges, not in a sterile environment. Solutions to food system challenges must be holistic, not simplistic.

The outbreak this spring of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in Midwestern chicken and turkey flocks resulted in the culling of tens of millions of birds to prevent its spread. The high number of birds killed reflects the size of some of these poultry operations. In Iowa, one of the states hit hardest, 31,723,300 birds were killed—on just 75 operations. The likelihood of disease spreading with this type of livestock concentration is extremely high.

The main response by our governmental veterinary experts was to encourage poultry operators to keep their birds indoors, if they were not already doing so. While I understand the seriousness and the need to manage this type of extreme emergency, I wonder why experts are not recommending ways to improve the immune systems of the poultry to help them combat this and other diseases. Is it too radical to consider having smaller flocks whose immune systems are highly developed due to their exposure to the outdoors? Wouldn’t the system be more resilient if smaller and more numerous houses were located across the U.S. rather than cramming hundreds of thousands of birds into one house and having just a handful of states be the major suppliers of eggs, chicken and turkey? I understand a vaccine against this strain of avian flu is in the works. But, since these viruses mutate, a vaccine that protects against this year’s virus may not work next year.

One hypothesis is that the most recent avian flu epidemic was caused because a virus easily spread in the wind, and was brought into the large confinement buildings through fans bringing fresh air into the houses. Is the next step to try and figure out how to restrict and sterilize the air coming into these large confinement operations? It is quite disappointing to see our research and response to this problem give little thought or dollars to understanding prevention through healthier living conditions that promote healthy birds, rather than developing more sterile environments to lessen risk.

Poultry operations aren’t the only farms with high animal concentrations. More and larger dairy and hog Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) continue to seek permits. These industrial models are a train wreck waiting to happen. The avian flu outbreak should be a warning that this model does not provide for a long-term healthy food supply, nor for the animals’ wellbeing. It’s not surprising that a recent study in Consumer Reports found higher levels of bacteria in beef from confined operations, nor that the findings made headlines.

Bacterial contamination of fresh produce also has been in the news recently. In this area, too, the trend is moving toward “sterile equals safe.” The FDA is putting together final regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act, which governs handling of fresh produce. Even with research showing that multiple washes in potable fresh water removes pathogenic bacteria on produce as well as wash water solutions with sanitizers such as chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide, there’s a strong likelihood that fresh produce food production and packaging will look more like pharmaceutical production than farming. Hopefully, the new regulations will have flexibility and recognize that “one-size” does not fit all operations. A food safety plan should respond to the corresponding risk of problematic bacteria present on the food, and there are numerous ways to mitigate this risk. Food safety must be tied to practical and common sense solutions rather than redundant and pointless documentation that results in fewer farmers providing local and organic food.

This sterile-is-best mentality also is permeating our landscape. In the search for absolutely weed-free crop fields, agricultural suppliers and the farmers they serve are running faster on the GMO treadmill—but that doesn’t mean they’re getting anywhere. The biotech agricultural companies keep pushing the USDA and EPA to approve more genetically engineered crops on a fast track. Since glyphosate (brand name Roundup) no longer kills every weed in a field of crops genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide, the biotech industry introduced 2,4-D-plus-glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybeans this spring (Dow’s Enlist crops). There are already numerous weeds that are resistant to 2,4-D, a long-used and problematic chemical. This “solution” to Roundup resistance will be short-lived.

Monsanto is now petitioning for genetically engineered dicamba- and glufosinate-tolerant corn (Liberty and Liberty Link GMO corn). Since the non-organic crop producers in the U.S. appear to have become addicted to growing these GE crops, each new product seems to be eagerly awaited and adopted without any thought to negative primary and secondary environmental effects. Statistics show how false the initial promise was that claimed fewer herbicides would be used when GE crops were introduced. Instead, the biotech firms are stacking more and more herbicide-tolerant traits in crops to pair with even more toxic multi-ingredient cocktails of herbicides to knock down persistant weeds.

These solutions ignore an important aspect of weed- and insect-free fields. Numerous studies show if a plant is challenged by a little bit of insect feeding or competes with a few weeds for nutrients and sunlight, the plant’s immune system is boosted. A similar immune response occurs in people and animals. If we are not challenged by diseases and germs, especially in childhood, we do not develop strong immune systems and defenses that protect our vitality.

Plants with strong immune systems also contain more antioxidants, providing healthier food for the humans and animals who consume these crops. Many researchers have found antioxidants in organically grown foods are significantly higher than in their non-organic equivalents. The fact that organic plants do not grow in a sterile environment contributes to the presence of these antioxidants. Less nutritious food is the unintended consequence of striving for that absolutely weed-, disease- and insect-free field by using products that lessen soil biological life and leave the plants in a sterile environment.

Another “unintended” consequence is the loss of biodiversity—fewer pollinators, frogs and reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals results in less resilient ecosystems. While not every insect, bird, mammal, or aquatic animal provides agricultural services, many do. Everyone understands the need for a strong and diverse population of pollinators. Birds eat problematic insects; predatory birds consume rodents that eat crops. The web of life is interdependent. When one strand of the web is weakened, the entire system falls out of balance, allowing for problematic insects, diseases and animals to become more prevalent. Our loss of biodiversity also negatively affects our quality of life.

There are more and more humans on the planet, and we are challenged to provide food and fiber for all. Industrialized agriculture, which seeks sterile conditions to deal with the numerous problems of concentrated and large-scale production and processing, must be challenged as the only model to feed the world.

Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist, answers farmers’ questions about certification and organic practices. Email her at

From the September | October 2015 Issue



September 29, 2015

Wow!  Right on target Harriet.

Bill Stoneman

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