June 9, 2011
Organic practices lessen threat of disease
The news this week that a deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria in Germany was from an organic farm raised flags with me, as much for its improbability as for its deadly nature.
Since those first reports, the German government has backed off its claim that an organic farm produced the outbreak.
While it’s possible for any farm – including an organic farm – to have produce infected by the bacterium, and consumers should always wash produce from the grocery, regardless of source, it’s less likely for organic produce for a variety of reasons.
First, the incidence of virulent strains of E. coli is a direct result of conventional (not organic!) farming of beef, where animals are “finished” on corn.
Ruminants are not naturally equipped to digest corn and it leads to bacteria (E. coli among them) being excreted from the gut. When coupled with the common practice of conventional agriculture (not organic!) to feed antibiotics to farm animals, virulent strains resistant to treatment are formed.
These bacterium are found in the manure of conventionally raised farm animals (not certified organic!) and that manure is often used to fertilize crops.
Here is where the possibility of E. coli can enter the organic food train, depending on the producer:
In certified organic vegetable crop production, strict manure handling is required.
Specifically: The U.S. regulations for organic production require that raw animal manure must be composted unless it is applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with soil; or is incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles. See 7 CFR 205.203 (c)(1) and (2).
Residual hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, disease organisms and other undesirable substances can be eliminated through high-temperature aerobic composting.
So, presumably, E. coli would be eradicated in certified organic crops – if manure is properly composted or incorporated.
Again, I’m not saying it cannot occur, but, for producers of organic crops, the likelihood of transmitting E. coli is much smaller.And, for those (such as in our case, for example) where only composted horse manure or composted grass-fed or organic cow manure is used, not “raw” manure, or from industrial agriculture confined and corn-finished herds, the likelihood drops to virtually zero.
Me? I say: Eat organic, eat local! Know your farmer. Compose your own compost and manures from known – or OMRI verified – sources.
For the home organic gardner: Anyone who is actually growing his or her own food and uses manure would do well to read the book: Holy Sh*t: Managing Manure To Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green, 2010, $17.50).
Online: For more on manures, see Organic Trade Association Q&A: http://bit.ly/eW35Gb.
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.