Humans have practiced agriculture in various forms since the end of the last ice age, nearly 12,000 years ago. In that time, we have developed standard practices that maximize the safety and shelf-life of produce. Many of these practices go back to antiquity, while some are more recent innovations. Regardless of age, each method plays a vital role in food safety, and you can think of them as the stages of safe food production.
Food Safety Is Front And Center
Good agricultural practices reduce the chances of produce becoming contaminated and unsafe to eat. Each practice protects food in its own way. In the US, many states run certification programs for farms based on a 1998 series of FDA guidelines.
Certified farms have illustrated that they have methods for each stage of the food production process. Therefore, their produce is less likely to be contaminated and is generally fit for sale and consumption.
7 Agricultural Practices To Prevent Contamination
These seven agricultural practices can look very different depending on time and place. Unfortunately, the FDA guidelines that direct these practices focus only on food safety, but new sustainable practices are starting to replace less environmentally friendly ones.
Farmers generally plow before planting. This process aerates and loosens the soil to accommodate new seeds better. Growers will also level the field to maintain even water saturation and apply fertilizer to replace nutrients removed during the last harvest.
Plowing causes erosion. Modern, sustainable farms often practice no-till soil preparation. This process uses modern equipment to inject seeds and fertilizer into the soil without breaking it all up. Studies show that the no-till approach lowers carbon emissions and improves soil fertility.
Sowing is the actual planting process. Farmers should choose seeds from good-quality plants. Traditional sowing took place by hand and still does in many parts of the world. Industrial farming uses mechanical seeders. Some crops need to grow in a more protected environment first, and farmers transplant them to the fields when they are ready.
Plants need nutrients. Industrial farming often uses synthetic fertilizers that cause massive carbon emissions during production. More traditional (and sustainable) methods include manure and compost. Additionally, techniques like crop rotation and cover crops keep soil nutrients at higher levels, reducing the need for introducing fertilizer of any kind.
Each crop has different water requirements, but water quality is always essential. Water sources include rain, wells, dams, ponds, etc. Farmers must pay careful attention to irrigation – too little water and the crop fails; too much and it becomes water-logged and may rot, spoil, or become contaminated.
Weeds can divert nutrients from crops, while pests can eat or contaminate them. Therefore, farmers traditionally pulled weeds by hand and relied on natural pest management like birds and various species of insects.
Modern farmers have used chemical herbicides and pesticides for decades. However, more sustainable farms are returning to the traditional methods, planting border hedges and trees to attract birds and helpful insects.
Mature crops need to be harvested with care to maximize yield and reduce the chances of Contamination. For most crops, farmers need to separate the edible parts from the rest of the plant. With cereal crops, this process is called threshing. Modern farms often use large machine threshers, while traditional farmers performed it by hand.
After harvesting and threshing, produce is incredibly vulnerable to climate and pests. For example, grains must be kept dry, or they will quickly begin to rot. Furthermore, rodents can destroy large amounts of grain very quickly. Therefore, secure bins and silos are necessary to store produce before it is brought to market.
Each Agricultural Practice Can Help or Hurt the Environment
How we grow, harvest, and store food has evolved over the centuries. The current age is seeing a continuation of that evolution, and we stand at a crossroads. Each practice, from soil preparation to storage, has a vital role in food safety.
However, not every available technique pays the same consideration to the environment and society. Understanding the seven major agricultural practices and how we can apply sustainable or regenerative practices to them will help us set out in the right direction.
- Go No-Till – Communicate with local farmers about how they treat the soil on their farms. Ideally, they will break the surface as little as possible – it keeps carbon sequestered and improves soil health.
- Chemical-Free – In your own garden or on a large farm, try to avoid all chemical inputs. For example, artificial fertilizers are a significant source of carbon emissions, and chemical runoff pollutes waterways.
- Old-School, Meet New-School – Not all agricultural tech is bad. Do your best to support innovation and consider buying from farms that invest in hi-tech monitoring equipment for irrigation, fertilization, and natural pest control.