Organic agriculture could reduce the spread of foodborne pathogens thanks to the greater biodiversity in organic soil, specifically the presence of soil microbes and insects, according to a new study.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, found that farmers seeking to reduce the spread of E. coli by removing natural habitats that may attract wildlife and thus introduce feces onto their land are actually achieving the opposite: microbes and insects that are vital for the eradication of pathogens from soil disappear at the same time.
“Wildlife and livestock are often seen as something that endanger food safety, but our research shows that reducing on-farm biodiversity might be totally counterproductive," Matthew Jones, who led the research as part of his PhD project at Washington State University, said in a press release.
“Nature has a ‘clean-up crew’ of dung beetles and bacteria that quickly remove feces and the pathogens within them, it appears. So, it might be better to encourage these beneficial insects and microbes.”
The research was carried out by spreading pig feces over 70 conventional and organic broccoli fields in the western United States. On organic farms, dung beetles cleaned up 90 percent of the feces in just a few days, while on conventional farms, the eradication of the feces and associated bacteria took much longer.
Lab tests confirmed both the presence of more organic material and less E. coli bacteria on organic farms.
“Bacteria are known to poison and otherwise fight among themselves and the same may be happening here,” Professor William Snyder of Washington State University.
Broccoli fields were chosen for this experiment due to broccoli's proximity to the ground as it grows and thus its increased susceptibility for contamination. Broccoli ranked number 35 on the EWG's Dirty Dozen list this year. The list identifies conventional produce likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues.
E. coli causes approximately 93,000 illnesses in the United States every year; an estimated 2,138 hospitalizations and 20 deaths a year are caused by the bacteria.
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