It is often forgotten that every piece of fruit and vegetable found at the supermarket was painstakingly picked by a man, woman, or child. Last week, these individuals – our nation’s farmworkers – have once again been forgotten. They were mostly ignored in a recent thread on the Food, Inc. Facebook page when the question was asked, “Where does your food come from?” in honor of Labor Day. More discouraging though, was that they have been completely disregarded in conversations about the health effects of pesticides in a string of articles following Bruce Ames’ speech at last week’s meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver.
During his speech, Ames, who is senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California, made the point that nutrient deficiencies from not eating fruits and vegetables are worse than eating fruits and vegetables treated with pesticides: “If you ask the public what is causing cancer, they’ll say it’s the pesticides on fruits and vegetables, but that’s the wrong message to give people,” Ames said. “To me, the real risks are eating a bad diet.” For Ames, eating chemically treated produce is better than eating no produce at all.
The question becomes: better for whom? More than one billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States, three-quarters of which are used in agriculture. Ames says the pesticides on our fruits and vegetables are often small, residual amounts of what was originally applied to this produce in the fields. However, farmworkers in this country are exposed to those agricultural pesticides used in our country’s fields and orchards every year. They are exposed to these chemicals at a much higher rate than the general population as they mix and prepare them. They inhale pesticides when fields are being sprayed. The residue latches onto their bodies, clothes, and shoes. The chemicals find their way into their homes, their children’s bodies, and into their food.
And yet, the conversation about organic versus non-organic produce rarely mentions farmworkers. It hinges mostly on whether these foods are worth the costs and whether they truly present risks to the consumer. This is the case with Dr. Ames’ comments.
To defend his point that non-organic produce poses little risk to the people who eat it, Dr. Ames, references rodent studies, pointing to the fact that carcinogenic outcomes result only after pesticide exposure at high levels , higher than what regulations allow on produce in the United States. Yet, there is no mention of the fact that farmworkers in this country are exposed to pesticides every single day, while working to harvest these fruits and vegetables. That continual, ongoing exposure puts them at risk for many diseases. As if pesticide residues weren’t enough, they are sometimes directly sprayed from aerial application or forced to work in areas that are under an active Restricted Entry Interval (REI), in spite of it being illegal to do so.
The well-being of farmworkers needs to be part of the debate on the safety of pesticides. We must not forget that the decisions about the kinds of produce we buy and the companies we buy them from, not only has implications for ourselves and our families; it has implications for the individuals who harvest these foods. Produce, both organic and conventional, doesn’t just show up in the aisles of the supermarket. We cannot forget that while our exposure to these toxic chemicals is relatively small, there are millions of people in this country for whom high occupational exposure to pesticides has been linked to developmental delays in children, cancer, and even death in a variety of scientific studies. For this reason, we would ask that Dr. Ames revisit his statement: “If you ask the public what is causing cancer, they’ll say it’s the pesticides on fruits and vegetables, but that’s the wrong message to give people.” Dr. Ames, what message are we sending to the public by leaving our nation’s farmworkers completely out of the discussion?