Conservation Concerns Regarding a Proposed National
Leafy Green Marketing Agreement
WFA's Testimony Given at National Leafy Green Marketing
Thank you for the opportunity to share Wild Farm Alliance’s (WFA)
perspective on the proposed NLGMA. WFA is a ten-year old organization
promoting a healthy, viable agriculture that protects and restores wild
Nature. We have been drawn into this debate on food safety because of
the conservation conflicts occurring with leafy green production on California’s
The marketing of leafy greens to increase sales is a fitting undertaking
for USDA AMS. However, it is questionable for AMS to be involved with
a program that ‘markets’ food safety. Inherent contradictions
between food safety and marketing occur within the CA LGMA. It is instructive
to review these challenges since the CA LGMA will undoubtedly be used
as a model if the NLGMA is created.
Conservation Gains in Jeopardy
The CA LGMA’s unstated guiding principle is to market the perception
of safe food, rather than always basing decisions on the best science.
Wildlife and ecosystems have suffered when perception and science have
not been aligned. The USDA NRCS and other agencies and nonprofits have
invested millions in farm conservation efforts that are now in jeopardy
due to the CA LGMA and third party supermetrics.
Farmers are forced to choose between buyer’s demands and stewardship
practices that can improve food safety. UC Davis researches have shown
that grasses and wetlands have the ability to filter up to 99% of E. coli
during rain events. It has long been known that windbreaks reduce dust.
This is an important function if a source of pathogenic dust, such as
a cattle loafing area, is nearby. Food safety and market perception conflicts
arise when wildlife are targeted because they are attracted to habitat
that can help to improve the safety of food.
Loopholes Allows All Wildlife to Be Unfairly Targeted
On the surface, the CA LGMA seems much more reasonable than supermetrics
because it only focuses on “animals of significant risk,”
which are defined as cattle, sheep, goats, feral and domestic pigs, and
deer. In reality, a critical part of their metrics refer to all “animals.”
Growers have reported to us that auditors penalize their farms for any
animals present, not just those on the significant risk list. By having
this loophole, the CA LGMA can market the perception that their products
are safe to many buyers who demand zero risk. Yet, there is never zero
risk in Nature.
Before the unfortunate E. coli O157: H7 spinach contamination in 2006,
auditors were inspecting leafy green fields for the presence of small
animals or other foreign objects that could be caught in the harvest and
end up in the bagged product. It is obviously bad publicity for mouse
or frog parts to be in salad mix. A UC Cooperative Extension paper reports
that to date, rodents are not a food safety issue. No studies have been
done in California that shows amphibians carry human pathogens, and no
one to our knowledge has been made ill from pathogens on animal parts
in salad mix. Therefore, small animal parts are a food quality perception
issue, not a food safety issue. But by checking for rodent and amphibian
harborage using its loopholes, the CA LGMA addresses the perception that
the food is safer.
Deer is Not an Animal of Significant Risk
In addition, the CA LGMA includes deer on their animals of significant
risk list with questionable science to back it up. In April 2009, California
Department of Fish and Game and collaborators released a preliminary report
stating that only 0.5% of wildlife carry E. coli O157: H7, and that none
of the 331 deer tested positive (one feral pig, two elk and one coyote
did). Other studies show deer were found with 0.3, 0.6,1.8, and 2.4% of
E. coli O157 in Nebraska, Southern States, Louisiana, and Kansas, respectively.
The higher prevalence (2.4%) was found where deer and cattle intermingle.
Cattle are the major source of E. coli O157: H7 in the landscape. For
Salmonella, 1% of deer tested positive in Nebraska. Deer are not a significant
risk but by including them on the CA LGMA significant risk list, it again
improves the perception that the food is safer for some buyers.
One way or the other, to conserve, or to fence or destroy non-crop vegetation
that may attract wildlife is costly for farmers because of misguided food
safety requirements. Throughout the Spring of 2007, growers managing 140,000
acres on California’s Central Coast responded to a survey conducted
by the Resource Conservation District (RCD) of Monterey County (the CA
LGMA began in the Winter of 2007). The farmers indicated that they have
adopted environmentally destructive measures in order to comply with food
safety audit requirements and keep their markets. Eighty-nine percent
of respondents reported that they had actively removed conservation practices
for water quality or wildlife habitat. One farmer reported a $17,500 loss
for deer tracks, and several others reported losses because frogs or their
nearby habitat. Survey respondents that used: bare ground buffers owned/rented
a total of almost 92,000 acres (65%); those that used fencing owned/rented
a total of about 66,000 acres (47%). The Small Farm Center’s recent
cost analysis of the CA LGMA shows that farmers had an opportunity cost
of 1-2% of their acreage because they were required to have a buffer between
crops and environmental uses. The Center also reported that it cost about
$11/acre for some of those farmers to remove noncrop vegetation, and about
$17/acre to put up fences.
Farmers Want to Be Good Stewards of the Land
Excerpts below from the RCD report show that growers have serious concerns
about the conflict:
“Our experience has been that the food safety auditors have been
very strict about any vegetation that might provide habitat. We are very
concerned about upsetting the natural balance, but we have to comply with
our shipper’s requests.”
“There is too much fear about food safety and not enough good science.
Providing habitat for wildlife is very important to me.”
“My concern is that they want us to kill all wildlife. This is not
the threat. We all need wildlife.”
Broad Statements Backed by Faulty Science
No one knows for certain how the spinach was contaminated in 2006. Without
concrete answers, wildlife have become easy scapegoats. Not just industry,
but the FDA has made broad statements backed by faulty science. In the
FDA’s recent draft melon guidance, they state food safety concerns
with amphibians and then cite an article about the amphibian chytrid fungus
(which causes Chytridiomycosis), a pathogen not linked to any human health
However, in FDA’s “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety
Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables,” they make an important
and reasonable distinction that is not made in the CA LGMA – proactive
measures should be taken when there are high concentrations of wildlife
(such as deer or waterfowl in a field), not just single animals. Risk
increases when there is a large number of anything with a small risk.
Organic Farmers at Risk
Organic farmers are required to conserve biodiversity by the National
Organic Program rule. The definition of organic production includes conserving
biodiversity, and the Standard 205.200 requires that farmers maintain
or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil, water,
wetlands, woodlands and wildlife. Several organic farmers told WFA they
have had to convince their CA LGMA auditors that habitat helped to ensure
food safety and that they could not remove it without fear of losing their
organic status. At the May 2009 National Organic Standards Board meeting,
a comprehensive plan was adopted to better ensure that biodiversity conservation
takes place on organic farms; and the USDA AMS fully supported this decision.
Water Quality is Degraded
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board requires farmers
to protect water quality and has a policy to fine farmers who don’t.
One of the easiest ways to ensure clean water leaves the farm is to have
all waterways vegetated. But as stated above, farmers are being forced
to take out these water quality protections, and in addition, are contributing
to the decline of the threatened Steelhead, which occurs in the Salinas
River. Steelhead have many stressors, from dams and poor river habitat
and water quality to overfishing; adding further pollutants from the farms
without the vegetative buffers makes no sense and could push this fish
closer to extirpation from the Salinas River. Besides removing habitat,
farmers are poisoning frogs. No doubt these farmers do not know if they
are poisoning a threatened red-legged frog or a common, invasive bullfrog.
Besides the problem of marketing the perception of safe food, the USDA
should consider that fresh-cut bagged leafy greens are periodically not
safe, as farmer Dale Coke mentioned and Community Alliance with Family
Farmers will report later at this hearing. If the CA LGMA was working,
no outbreaks would have occurred since it was instituted.
Spreading Misguided Supermetrics Nationwide
One of the most problematic aspects of a NLGMA is that it will spur the
creation of a large number of supermetrics around the country. Some of
the most egregious supermetrics require 450’ sterile ground buffer
between crops and habitat. Many of the signatories of the LGMA have their
own supermetrics and many were created after the LGMA as part of a race
to prove that they have the best product. We also saw the spread of food
safety metrics to other crops like Brussel sprouts after the creation
of the CA LGMA. Because they are proprietary the exact number is unknown.
While some of the companies who have endorsed the CA LGMA are national
and/or international and must already require their farmers to conform
to their supermetrics on those larger scales, many companies outside of
California and Arizona have not created supermetrics. If a NLGMA were
to be established, many of the new companies that sign on in the country
would certainly also create their own supermetrics. Not only would this
be hard on farmers to comply with multiple metrics for one harvest, but
it would amplify the conservation conflicts. It should not be assumed
that the supermetrics will somehow go away because the proposed NLGMA
would have a larger base. If the CA LGMA was not able to control the supermetrics
in CA, it can not be expected to do so nationally, without further effort.
The NLGMA should institute internal controls that do not allow the supermetrics
to go above and beyond them. The USDA AMS National Organic Program can
be used as a model – it only allows entities to use their seal that
have equal footing. Additionally, by doing this, the supermetrics would
be made transparent, which would reduce the proliferation, and ultimately
reduce the cost for farmers to comply with so many standards.
LGMA-Type Programs Could Cost Farmers 17% to 28%
of Their Net
The Small Farm Center’s report also pointed out that the probable
cost for joining the CA LGMA was on average around $100/acre (which is
about 1% of the gross), with the upper end of about $150/acre. As a former
small farmer, I know that expenses such as the LGMA compliance will not
be passed onto the consumer but will come out of the net profit. When
I mentioned this to Shermain Hardesty, the Center's Director, she made
a comparison to the production of iceberg lettuce using a recent report
just published by Karen Klonsky and co-authors for iceberg head lettuce.
She says that when comparing these LGMA costs to iceberg lettuce, the
$100/acre represents 17.4% of the net returns above total costs, and the
$150/acre represents 28.5% Not many small farmers could make ends meet
and comply with the CA LGMA at this rate.
While we do not recommend the adoption of the NLGMA, the following points
will reduce its detrimental impacts:
• All appointments to the Advisory Committee, Technical Committee,
and Marketing Committee should be made by the Secretary, including those
made in later years when terms have expired. Otherwise the NLGMA will
become an insider group.
• Ensure that concerns regarding the NLGMA not making the same mistakes
with loopholes, and the definition of “animals of significant risk,”
(only cattle, sheep, goats, feral and domestic pigs should be included)
are conveyed to the Technical Committee.
• Ensure that studies documenting non-crop vegetation filtering
pathogens such as grasses and wetlands are shared with the Technical Committee
so that they craft the audit metrics to encourage that these habitat components
• Recommend to the Technical Committee that a thorough review of
wildlife research related to food safety is done before species are labeled
a significant risk.
• Review audit metrics yearly, instead of as few as every three
years, so that newly released research is considered on a timely basis.
• Include a proportional number of organic handlers and farmers
that reflects the percentage of organic leafy greens grown, so that the
organic industry can protect its interests, including the conservation
• Include an environmental advocate and a consumer advocate on the
• Include a representative from the US Fish and Wildlife Service,
California Department of Fish and Game, and National Marine Fisheries
to the Technical Committee in order to ensure that common and rare wildlife
• Include a representative from the CA EPA State Water Quality Control
Board to the Technical Committee so that water quality and food safety
practices are comanaged.
• Institute internal controls that do not allow the supermetrics
to go above and beyond the NLGMA seal, and require that they become transparent.
• Require that all Committees use consensus minus one process (consensus
minus one allows for all to have equal input, but doesn’t allow
one person to hold up a decision).
Unless a well thought out and biodiversity positive NLGMA that accommodates
the needs of small farmers is created, we are opposed to this process.
Besides the degradation of soil, water and wildlife habitat wherever leafy
greens are grown in the US, millions of public dollars are at stake. Farmers
in markets that require the LGMA and supermetrics will be encouraged to
take out previously installed conservation practices and will be hesitant
to put in new ones that protect our natural resources. Such misguided
food safety requirements are counterproductive.
or read California
farmer Dale Coke's testimony in D.C. on the impact of the Leafy Greens