Dear EarthTalk: What will be the effect of all the flooding along the Mississippi River for organic farmers, given all the pollutants in the water? When they recover, can they still certify their products as organic?
— Michael O’Loughlin, Tigard, OR
The combination of record floods and record numbers of organic farms has led many to wonder about the safety of even our organic groceries. Luckily for Americans, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a policy in place to govern how farmers respond to such situations and how affected crops and fields are handled to ensure that consumers continue to have access to healthy and safe food.
For one, the FDA doesn’t allow any flooded out crops—organic or otherwise—to be sold or consumed by people. The agency considers “ready to eat crops…that have been in contact with flood waters to be adulterated due to potential exposure to sewage, animal waste, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms or other contaminants.” Given that there is no known method of “reconditioning” such crops that would “provide a reasonable assurance of safety for human food use,” the FDA instructs farmers to dispose of them “in a manner that ensures they do not contaminate unaffected crops during harvesting, storage or distribution.” So-called “adulterated” food can be seized and violators prosecuted under federal law.
Of course, many farms affected by floods have other fields that remain unaffected. The FDA recommends a 30 foot buffer between flooded areas and fields that can still yield edible food. Also, farm equipment shouldn’t be driven through or exposed to flooded areas (or their affected crops) to minimize the risk of contamination. As to when farmers, organic or conventional, can replant fields inundated with floodwaters, the FDA suggests waiting at least 60 days to ensure contaminants aren’t still in the soil.
No discussion of organic farming and flooding is complete without mention of global warming. Italian researchers analyzed runoff data recorded in the Swiss Alps to study how flood risk varies with temperature, precipitation and elevation in mountainous regions. They reported in the January 2010 edition of the journal Geophysical Research Letters that global warming does increase flood risk significantly, and that large floods have occurred more frequently in recent years than in the past.
Furthermore, they predict global warming will result in such floods occurring more often in the future. If global temperatures increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as many scientists expect, so-called “hundred-year-floods” could occur every 20 years or so, putting untold numbers of people at risk. Global warming is also responsible for more frequent and more intense storms that can cause widespread flooding.
The good news is that farming organically is one way to stave off global warming. Research at the Rodale Institute found that “organic farming helps combat global warming by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the soil, whereas conventional farming exacerbates the greenhouse effect by producing a net release of carbon into the atmosphere.” And Cornell University researcher David Pimentel found that organic farms use 63 percent of the energy used by same-size conventional farms, which rely on large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer produced synthetically with large amounts of energy.