Chavez Would Be Pleased: A Growing Awareness For The Health and Dignity of Field and Farm Workers

Did you know that a person, not a machine, probably picked the produce that went into your last salad? In fact 85% of produce in the U.S. is still picked by hand. Sure, major commodity crops like soy, corn, and wheat are harvested by the whirring blades, belts, and bins of combines, but many of the “bruisables”—items like strawberries, lettuces, and melons—require a more human touch.

National Farmworkers Awareness week, an event created by Student Action for Farmworkers (SAF) and celebrated last week, reminds us of the importance of those who work hard in the fields, and raises awareness of poor working and living conditions, super low wages, exposure to toxic chemicals, lack of ability to unionize, and other dismal conditions—when and where they still exist.

While many dystopian labor camps in the news today are in Mexico, conditions in the U.S. could be improved. For instance, Patti Goldman of Earth Justice recently addressed an EPA decision that in her words “fails farmworkers, again”  in regards to protecting them against toxic chemicals. The pesticide in question is chlorpyrifos, produced by Dow AgroScience, which has been shown through numerous studies to lower birth weights, damage the central nervous system, disrupt the endocrine system and is possibly linked to lung and prostate cancer.

Earth Justice filed a lawsuit forcing the EPA to respond to an 8-year-old petition demanding that the agency ban the chemical. Earlier this week, EPA decided that it would not go through with the ban, even though, as Goldman explains, the toxic risk exposure model that was used to show the “safety” of chlorpyrifos came from the chemical’s creator:

The EPA has agreed to use a Dow model that purports to pinpoint the precise exposures to women and kids that will cause adverse effects. Despite the model’s numerous flaws and uncertainties, Dow has convinced the EPA that this one model has the precision and accuracy necessary to reduce safety precautions routinely employed to protect people from toxic pesticides.”

In a related story, a recent World Health Organization research finding shows that the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp, glyphosate, may be carcinogenic. A Monsanto ecologist first touted that the chemical was so safe that “you can drink a whole quart of it,” but then refused to take a sip of it. While this is a humorous and somewhat “gossipy” tale, it serves to show that some agribusinesses may have something to hide when it comes to the safety of their chemicals. 

Who is most likely to be exposed to hazardous levels of these chemicals? Farmworkers, of course. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones reports on a hopeful story of farmers standing up for their right to a healthy work environment. Two hundred miles south of San Diego, workers in the San Quintín valley have gone on strike and are demanding better treatment and better union laws. Their action has had a profound effect on the U.S. produce market, with companies like Costco worrying about low inventories of produce like organic strawberries. The U.S. may experience more fallout from this strike according to Philpott’s research:

Meanwhile, the strike's organizers plan to launch a campaign to get U.S. consumers to boycott products grown in the region, mainly tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries, inspired by the successful '70s-era actions of the California-based United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez, La Jornada reported Tuesday.And current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez has issued a statement of solidarity with the San Quintín strikers."

As National Farmworkers Awareness Week reminds us, we are all inextricably linked to the food that we eat and the people that grow, harvest and process that food. The state of their health and livelihood directly affects those of us only on the consumption end of the supply chain.

Image via Flickr 


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson 

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