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Dangers of farm work in the sunshine state

Margaret Reeves's picture
Margaret Reeves
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Sad womanIn last week’s Atlantic, Barry Estabrook shines a light on the horrific story of pesticides and farmworker families in Florida's Lake Apopka. Thousands in the small African American community suffer from myriad maladies including kidney failure and a rate of birth defects that is 4 times greater than in other Florida towns.

The response? Florida governor Rick Scott blatantly turns a blind eye, vetoing an allocation of $500,000 to investigate the birth defects. What was he thinking?

Scott’s mystifying decision is a heavy blow for residents of Lake Apopka and for the Farmworker Association of Florida's (FWAF) ongoing battle for farmworker justice. For nearly 30 years the FWAF has worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the Lake Apopka story by documenting the impacts of pesticide exposure in the community.

Florida farmworkers struggle for justice

Lake Apopka is one of many clusters of birth defects among Florida farmworkers. In 2005 Florida's Palm Beach Post ran a series of articles linking birth defects to pesticides used on farms owned and operated by tomato grower Ag-Mart Produce.

Despite thorough documentation — including testimony provided by a California state toxicologist — a Florida judge dismissed 71 of the 80 charges against the company.

Ag-Mart faced similar charges in North Carolina and New Jersey. In North Carolina an original fine of $184,500 issued in 2006 was reduced in 2010 to paltry $25,000. In 2009 the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection fined Ag-Mart nearly $1 million for pesticide violations they considered "the most serious ever uncovered" by the agency. 

Organic farming thrives in the belly of the beast

Yet even in Rick Scott’s Florida there's hope for eventual escape from the pesticide treadmill. Florida is in step with many states around the country showing strong growth of the organic industry. And, as a University of Florida analysis shows, demand is outpacing production so the market incentives are strong for farmers to buck the pesticide habit. 

One source of support for this transition is under threat: federal conservation programs that help farmers shift to organic are under attack in the current federal budget debates. Please follow our posts on the topic, as well as those of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Protecting and promoting organic farming in Florida will go a long way toward protecting farmworkers and their families in the sunshine state. It's also good for Florida farmers, birds and alligators — and for consumers across the country.

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