As social-ecological interactions become increasingly complicated and/or visible, more social scientists have started to bring ecology into their studies, including microbial ecology. This engagement becomes critically important when we realize that in cases where we fail to recognize interactions between microbial dynamics and social systems we may increase the potential for negative impacts such as disease. This talk broadly explores the question: how can microbial ecology help us better understand social issues? This question will be explored through a case study of leafy greens production in California. Originally this case study focused on farm management practices and decision-making. However, interactions between crop production, salad processing, and livestock management introduced microbial organisms as a significant factor influencing management practices. Methods for this case study included over 130 personal interviews and a mail survey conducted in the Central Coast region of California.
The results from this study illustrate that in some cases understanding microbial ecology may prove critical for addressing social issues. In 1996, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 traced to processed bagged spinach led to dramatic changes in farming practices in California. Personal interviews and survey results indicate that these changes included the widespread adoption of measures to eradicate wildlife, portrayed by salad processing companies as significant sources of E. coli O157:H7. However, further analysis exploring microbial organisms suggests that wildlife eradication activities may not represent an appropriate response. Studies show that wildlife rarely carry E. coli O157:H7. In addition, interviews with those who work in the salad processing industry illustrate how the designs of processing systems may spread contamination and encourage microbial growth. Lastly, studies indicate that the primary source of E. coli O157:H7 may be linked to practices associated with industrial livestock production. This case study illustrates that how industries organize food production systems influences microbial organisms in ways that can have serious consequences for society. More broadly, this study indicates that in certain cases microbial ecology can play an important role in helping us to better understand social issues.