From The Smallest Bee To The Strongest Farmworker Community: Pesticides Influence On Our Food Supply

“What is happening in our sociological world is also happening in our biological world,”—Ramona Beltran, PhD.

At the forum held by Beyond Pesticides April 8 and 9 in Denver, a range of scientists and advocates met to discuss how pesticides affect various communities around the country.  Dr. Beltran, a Yaqui researcher from the University of Washington, described the bond between the physical health of a community’s members, the environment, and the social experience the community has shared in her presentation.  One example of this relationship included the main topic of discussion at the Beyond Pesticides Forum —the dwindling bee population.

Why should farmworkers and their advocates care that all pollinators, including bees, are dramatically dwindling in number throughout North America?

Agricultural commodities dependent on pollination may be affected sooner and more dramatically than we think, creating consequences for the people working in this industry, both in physical health and finances. In fact, one out of every three bites of food we eat is pollinated by bees, according to James Frazier from Penn State University.  He and other scientists have completed studies linking pesticide use with the declining bee population.  Considering bees have been established as excellent indicators of the environment’s health, and scientists believe the dwindling population of bees is likely a result of pesticide usage, how safe are the people laboring in the fields?

The implications of an unhealthy biological world reflecting sociological ills are echoed in the farmworker community’s decades-long experience with pesticides.  Farmworkers and their families may face acute and chronic health effects due to pesticide exposure, ranging from nausea at the first sign of exposure, to long term effects like autism and cancer. Scientists at the conference also revealed studies linking Lupus and Autoimmune Rheumatic Disease (ARD) with household pesticide exposure and a database itemizing many pesticides as endocrine disruptors. However, only a few of the advocates at the Denver forum described farmworkers’ role in mitigating the dangers of pesticides.

Nevertheless, due to the large portion of pesticides in the country being used in agriculture, farmworkers are inevitably taking action. Recently in Tennessee, 15 workers were fired from their jobs on a tomato farm because they complained about being exposed to pesticides, putting the company in violation of the Worker Protection Standard, which has a ‘whistleblower clause’ protecting workers from retaliation. Southern Migrant Legal Services is working with the farmworkers to take legal action to put the company back into compliance.

In a workshop about organizing strategies, Tracey Brieger of Californians for Pesticide Reform described how agricultural communities like the San Joaquin Valley achieved wider buffer zones around schools near fields to prevent exposure from drift. Jennifer Rodriguez, representing the Migrant Farmworkers Division of Colorado Legal Services described their Casillas Pesticide Action Project, inspired by a teenager who was heavily exposed twice in a row to pesticides in Utah and whose subsequent death is suspected to be linked with those exposures.

The farmworker experience with pesticides is complex, much like the relationship bees have with our food, but prioritizing the health of the most important people to our country’s food system is simple.  More resources must go into studies that investigate sociological factors in farmworker communities with the same weight as biological factors.

For a comprehensive understanding of some of the health effects of pesticides on farmworker communities, see the AFOP Health & Safety Programs’ page and check out our publications.

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