Clearing areas of natural habitat around farm fields doesn’t improve food safety, a new study shows.
The practice began after a 2006 E. coli outbreak was traced back to packaged spinach from a California farm. That outbreak killed three people and sickened hundreds of others in the United States, researchers said. The source of the E. coli that caused the outbreak was never officially determined.
“Wildlife took much of the blame for that outbreak, even though rates of E. coli in wildlife are generally very low,” study author Daniel Karp, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a university news release.
“Now, growers are pressured by buyers to implement practices meant to discourage wildlife from approaching fields of produce. This includes clearing bushes, plants and trees that might serve as habitat or food sources for wild animals. Our study found that this practice has not led to the reductions in E. coli and salmonella that people were hoping for,” Karp said.
He and his colleagues assessed the use of this practice at farms in the United States, Mexico and Chile. Their findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Having natural habitats around food crop fields can actually offer a number of benefits, the researchers said.
“There is strong evidence that natural habitats surrounding crop fields encourage wild bee populations and help the production of pollinated food crops,” study senior author Claire Kremen, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, said in the news release.
“There have also been studies that suggest that a landscape with diverse plant life can filter out agrichemical runoff and even bacteria. Changing this dynamic shouldn’t be taken lightly,” she added.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about food safety.