Super-simplified agri-systems support disease

August 2019

E.coli 0157 -

In 1996, an outbreak of E.coli 0157 bacterial disease in Scotland involved the largest recorded number of infected adults in whom the early digestive-tract symptoms progressed to life-threatening kidney disease. Twenty-eight of them died.

That same year, 7,966 individuals were diagnosed with E.coli 0157 infection in a single outbreak in Japan.

Because the guts of healthy cattle are a reservoir for E.coli 0157, the animals, their manure, and the land they've grazed, are potential sources of the infection. The bacteria can also make their way from fields into the water supply.

The Scottish E.coli 0157 outbreak was caused by contaminated raw meat stored next to cooked meat. The Japanese outbreak was caused by radish sprouts contaminated by infected water.

Organic foods have always been seen as an arch-enemy by biotech proponents. In a desperate attempt to trash organics, they've even been blamed for deadly infections of E.coli 0157 bacteria.
In 1998, one ardent GM fan confidently announced in the press that, due to the animal manure in which organic food is grown, "According to recent data compiled by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and 'natural' foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E.coli bacteria (0157:H7)". This appears, however, to be phantom data, because the CDC insists it "has not conducted any study that compares or quantitates the specific risk for infection with E.coli 0157:H7 and eating either conventionally grown or organic/natural foods."

Indeed, such a connection seems unlikely because in organic farming, animal manure must be fully composted and sterile before use. It's also been pointed out that a modern conventional feedlot of 5,000 cattle produces so much manure that it's too difficult and too expensive to truck away: increasing amounts of raw manure are being spread on farmers' fields because they don't have anywhere else to put it.

E.coli 0157 is just one of many pathogens world-wide, which contaminate fresh produce and underlie millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths. Besides cattle, all livestock and all wildlife are known vectors of disease. 'Good' practice in modern farming therefore encourages the exclusion of wild-life from the fields. Methods to achieve this include: removal of hedgerows, ponds, and adjacent non-crop areas which will harbour wildlife; fumigation of the soil to wipe out entire communities of nematode worms, fungi, bacteria, insects and weeds; and the application of pesticides to obliterate the weeds and insects which attract wildlife.

The net effect of these practices, plus the use of chemical fertilizers, is that the farm ecosystem is a very simplified one indeed: both predators and herbivores are limited by lack of available food; the plants there are a single strain of a single species; and the soil contains little organic matter, a lot of anti-microbial toxins, and little life.

A study in America has called into question whether the current 'war' on carriers of farmland pathogens is actually making our food any safer.

Using Broccoli (which may be eaten raw) as a model food, E.coli 0157 as a model pathogen, and a cross-section of 70 fields across three states in America, plus some laboratory-based microcosm experiments with pig dung as a model, researchers measured what encouraged or discouraged the pathogen. Their findings supported the "surprising recent evidence" that farm ecosystem simplification "actually increases the likelihood that produce will be contaminated with human pathogens".

A key factor seems to be the amounts of organic matter incorporated into the soil. Organic matter supports a huge diversity of microbial life which antagonises E.Coli 0157. Incorporation of organic matter into the soil involves the activity of invertebrates, in particular, the dung beetle. These beetles process and bury animal manure, not only suppressing the E.coli there, but introducing 80% more nitrogen into the soil which would otherwise be lost, and stabilising the soil. Important to the efficiency of this whole process is farm-ecosystem diversity.

Different species of dung beetle perform different actions on the soil. The now-dominant dung beetle in American fields is an introduced species which is much less effective at reducing levels of E.coli 0157 than the native dung beetle it has pushed out. Tellingly, on organic farms, where diversity is encouraged, the introduced species of dung beetle isn't dominant.


The conclusion seems inescapable that the key to safe and nutritious food lies in encouraging a diversity of all life forms in and around the farm with organic, agro-ecological production methods.

America it seems has very different plans for us (see AMERICA'S GM PLANS - August 2019). These all involve an inescapable treadmill of chemicals and GMOs in a super-simplified agricultural system.

YOU can still say NO, and now's the time: use to contact your MP, MSP and MEP and tell them to drop simplistic farming and encourage diversity.

  • Matthew S. Jones, et al., 2018, Organic farming promotes biotic resistance to foodborne human pathogens, journal of Applied Ecology 56
  • Organic Farming Curbs the Spread of Foodborne Pathogens, According to Study, Beyond Pesticides, 18.04.19
  • Organic farming curbs spread of foodborne pathogens, according to study, GM Watch, 18.04.19
  • Trashing organic foods,
  • Stephanie Dundas, et al., 2001, The Central Scotland Escherichia coli 0157:H7 Outbreak: Risk Factors for the Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome and Death among Hospitalized Patients , Clinical Infectious Diseases 33
  • Ji Youn Lim, et al., 2010, A Brief Overview of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 and Its Plasmid 0157, Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology 20(1)

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