For well over a decade, PAN has worked with partner groups in our key states to test the air for pesticide drift using a device called the Drift Catcher. We launched the latest round of drift-catching in California a little over a year ago, and we’re now reflecting on lessons learned and awaiting results.
Our partners already know pesticide drift is a problem. The data collected by drift-catching often supports advocacy work we do together, and helps bring about policy changes that protect farmers, communities and workers.
Examples include Iowa farmers pushing to protect their farms from drift, rural residents in Minnesota combatting drift from nearby potato fields, and the parents and community members in California and Hawaiʻi winning buffer zones that protect schoolchildren from drift from nearby fields, and statewide chlorpyrifos bans.
Science with the people
What I like best about drift-catching is that it’s an opportunity to do science with people who aren’t formally trained as scientists.
During drift-catching, partners learn about taking observations and how to record data. If we collect evidence of drift, it means they’ve gotten some information that answers questions they’ve had about drift — for instance, is drift happening, and to what extent? Many PAN partners have lived with these questions for years.
I first had the opportunity to work with the device with organic farmers and frontline community members in Iowa when I started working at PAN. Working on the California project this year has reminded me how challenging, varied, and interesting the Drift Catcher projects can be.
One of the constant challenges with this work is the difficulty of knowing when to monitor, because we don’t know which pesticide is being applied, or when. Drift-catching partners may be familiar with what pesticide spray looks like, but knowing the specifics can get complicated if neighbors and/or pesticide applicators don’t want to share information freely. In addition, other kinds of agrichemicals may be applied that just look like pesticide spray.
This year’s California drift-catching
Along with PAN Grassroots Science Fellow Jibril Kyser, I spent the past several months traveling around California with the Drift Catcher. This year’s air monitoring was funded by the California Air Resources Board, and we aim to do drift-catching at 10 sites in California communities over the course of the three-year project.
For this round of drift-catching, we had the chance to work with primarily Spanish-speaking partners in coordination with Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR), which organizes in Latinx communities in the state. Conducting a training via interpreters was challenging, and I wish first and foremost that I spoke Spanish myself. But I’m grateful that we have Drift Catcher materials and instructions available in Spanish.
This language barrier was a humbling reminder of what it was like for my grandparents on both sides when they immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and Hong Kong.
Another common challenge we faced was that our community partners don’t have much spare time to do this work. Sample tubes in the Drift Catcher need to be changed about every 12 hours, and it can be difficult to do this while managing other life duties such as childcare, and hold a job — many folks we work with juggle all of these duties, and more.
Grassroots science wish list
Doing this work with Jibril was particularly enlightening. Jibril is a lot younger than me, and his surprise and dismay over seeing huge swaths of monoculture in the Central Valley let me look at our home state’s agricultural landscape with fresh eyes. It was also energizing to introduce a young scientist to the participatory, grassroots science we do at PAN.
I wish we had even more opportunities to do science with community members, as people across the country (and sometimes internationally!) often reach out to PAN asking for Drift Catchers. But we’ve learned over the years that for staff to best support these projects, we have to be selective, and do drift-catching in states where we have ongoing campaigns and partnerships.
I also wish we were always able to bring about change using the data we collect through these projects. Yet at PAN we know that data alone aren’t always sufficient to win the policy changes we want to see.
That’s exactly why doing grassroots science with our community partners is so important. More often than not, the people we do drift-catching with become more deeply engaged in advocacy efforts for the long haul — whether or not we collect evidence of drift.