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Balancing food safety and water quality not cheap or easy, but it can be done

Comanagement conference participants discuss farming and conservation efforts at a diversified organic operation.
Fresh produce growers are challenged to protect soil and water quality on their farms as well as support wildlife populations by preserving their habitat. At the same time, growers must protect their crops from contamination by pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses. None of this is cheap or easy, but it can be done.

To help farmers and growers efficiently achieve the best results, the University of California Cooperative Extension, in collaboration with the Farm Food Safety and Conservation Network brought together 80 people on Aug. 20 for the seventh annual Food Safety and Water Quality Co-management Forum.

Participants represented food safety and conservation professionals, food safety auditors, academics, and government agency personnel. This cross-section of the fresh produce community provided diverse perspectives beneficial to discussions on balancing food safety and water quality objectives in agricultural production. As State Water Resources Control Board member Steve Moore noted, "Decisions based on collaborative efforts have the most durable solutions." 

Forum participants heard the latest information on drought effects to water resources and innovative strategies to provide water to agricultural operations, including existing recycled water projects. Panelists presented the latest information on existing and pending regulations that affect co-management, and fresh produce growers discussed practical strategies to manage agricultural production for food safety and sustainability outcomes.

“Research is continuing to support the decisions of fresh produce growers in balancing food safety and water quality on their farms” explained Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. “The question now is how do we put that knowledge into action in the face of the current California drought and pending state and federal regulations of both water resources and food safety? Discussion among stakeholders, whether that be produce growers and buyers or conservation professionals and policymakers are a key component of the process of co-management.”

The forum concentrated on the types of practices and policy programs that may help, and discussed strategies, both field-based and policy-driven, that might support progress in addressing persistent resource concerns relevant to agricultural production.

“This forum always provides a great networking opportunity for any decisionmakers influencing policy or implementing environmental protection or on-farm food safety strategies,” said Kaley Grimland-Mendoza, small farmer enterprise development specialist for the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association.

The first panel of the day focused on the opportunities and challenges of co-managing water resources and food safety in California's current drought. The panel was moderated by Johnny Gonzales, water resource control engineer and Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program coordinator with the State Water Resources Control Board, and included Robert Johnson, assistant general manager and chief of water resources planning for the Monterey County Water Resources Agency; Robert Holden, principal engineer of the Monterey County Water Pollution Control Agency's Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project; Jeff Cattaneo, San Benito County Water District manager; Samir Assar, director of Produce Safety for the US Food and Drug Administration; and Moore.

A panel of local growers representing diverse commodities and operational sizes discussed their daily process of co-managing for food safety and water quality. The panel included Michael Brautovich, senior manager for Farm Quality, Food Safety and Organic Integrity at Earthbound Farm/Natural Selection Foods; Brendan Miele, director of Domestic Farm Relations for Jacobs Farms / Del Cabo Inc; Chris Drew, Sea Mist Farms production manager; and Rebecca Bozarth of Harvest Moon Agricultural Services.

Following the panel discussions, participants visited an organic vegetable farm near Salinas. The landowner, growers, conservation, and food safety professionals discussed food safety and water quality opportunities, challenges and possible alternatives with an emphasis on solutions that exemplify co-management. The discussion also included questions that arise in a decision-making process and where more information or research is needed.

FDA's Samir Assar participated both as a panel member to answer questions about the proposed Produce Safety Rule and in small group discussions during the field exercise to explore co-management challenges and strategies at one local produce farm.

“The farm visits are essential for farmers to observe what food safety practices others are implementing to reduce risks and tailoring such practices to their farm operations while maintaining on-farm conservation value,” Grimland-Mendoza said. “It would be great to have representation and participation from large produce buyers, who have historically been the most skeptical of co-management strategies and have required the most stringent food safety practice requirements.”

Participants were surveyed before and after the forum. “After the forum, 96 percent of the participants felt they understood co-management principles, 31 percent higher than at the start of the day,' Bianchi said, “and 85 percent of the participants felt that they could incorporate what they learned into the decisions they make.”

For more information about co-management, visit http://cesanluisobispo.ucanr.edu/Co-management_of_Food_Safety_and_Sustainability or contact Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperation Extension farm advisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, at (805) 781-5949 or mlbianchi@ucanr.edu.

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 3:52 PM

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