PANNA: Families of Consumers and Farmworkers Benefit from Organic

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Families of Consumers and Farmworkers Benefit from Organic
November 22, 2004

As people across the United States prepare to celebrate a holiday centered on the contemplation of food, pesticides are uninvited guests . Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicates that we all carry an average of 13 pesticides in our bodies, some of which can cause cancer, disrupt hormones, decrease fertility, cause birth defects, and weaken our immune systems. The concentrations of these pesticides in our bodies often exceed levels considered safe for human health.

Simply eating dinner exposes us to pesticides we never asked for. For example, potatoes, a perennial holiday staple, are among the worst offenders containing residues of up to 29 pesticides. Women, children, and Mexican-Americans carry the highest pesticide body burden – the latter due in large part to the fact that over 70% of farmworkers are of Mexican descent. Unwilling exposure to dangerous pesticides is a concern that links consumers with the farmworkers who grow our food.

The traditional Native American foods highlighted at Thanksgiving in the U.S. are still brought to the table by descendents of the people who first domesticated these plants. Increasing proportions of U.S. farmworkers are indigenous peoples from Mexico who face serious language, cultural, and economic discrimination when migrating to the United States. Farmworkers are essential to U.S. agriculture, yet the inadequacy of immigration law subjects migrants to legal insecurity, exploitative labor conditions, and even cases of modern-day slavery. Farmworkers in conventional agriculture are also regularly exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides in the fields and packing houses, and suffer myriad health problems associated with pesticide exposure ranging from seizures to elevated rates of leukemia, stomach cancer, and cervical and uterine cancer.

In a heartbreaking recent case, three women who worked with their husbands in an Immokalee, Florida tomato field belonging to the Ag-Mart Corporation gave birth to babies with severe birth defects. One child, Carlitos, was born without arms and legs. Two days later a baby girl, Violeta, was born missing her nose, ear, and visible genitalia, and died several days after birth. Violeta's older siblings were born healthy before their parents came to work in Ag-Mart's fields. At the entrance to the field where all six parents worked is posted a list of 38 separate products involving some 30 pesticides used on the crops during the year. While covering this situation, The Palm Beach Post discovered that regulators in Florida and North Carolina have charged Ag-Mart Corporation with over 300 violations of pesticide laws. Florida 's major grocery store chain Publix preemptively pulled Ag-Mart's Sweet Santa brand tomatoes from its shelves in anticipation of consumer concern.

The good news is that buying organic food reduces pesticide exposure for both farmworkers and consumers. Even as corporations such as Kraft and Dean Food -- who are buying up many organic brands -- lobby to dilute U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards with legislation that allows additional synthetic chemicals in processing, buying organic remains the most fundamental action that consumers can take to reduce pesticide exposure. A recent biomonitoring study from the government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that feeding exclusively organic food to schoolchildren for just five days greatly decreased the quantity of organophosphorus pesticides found in their urine. The study concluded that the children were most likely exposed to these pesticides through their diet, strongly indicating that buying organic food can almost immediately decrease the pesticide body burden of your family. When consumers turn to organics during the holidays, we are giving thanks and helping parents who work in the fields to have healthier families as well.

In addition to buying organic, here are other ways that consumers can help improve farm workers' living conditions:

  • Join PANNA's Action Alert listserv to learn about opportunities to end pesticide poisoning from the most dangerous agricultural chemicals.
  • Show active solidarity with farm labor movements. Visit the web pages of farmworker organizations such as the United Farm Workers, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for information on how to take action on current campaigns. Organizing gives farmworkers a voice to end abuses such as pesticide poisoning.
  • Seek out fairly made and fair traded products. Select the fair trade label when buying imported products such as coffee, chocolate, and tea. Fair trade systems offers small-scale farmers the ability to stay on their land, rather than migrating in search of higher wages, and supports larger farms with dignified working conditions.
  • Support strong rural economies by purchasing from local farmers and farmer cooperatives. Many family farmers do not offer living wages and benefits to their workers because they cannot afford them even for themselves. Buying directly from farmers at farmers markets and advocating for fair agricultural prices reduces the pressure on farmers to expose themselves and their employees to poor working conditions.

 

Source: The California Farm Labor Force: Overview and Trends from the National Agricultural Workers Survey. Aguirre International, Burlingame, CA. June 2005; Lu, Chensheng, K. Toepel, R. Irish, R. A. Fenske, D. B. Barr, and R. Bravo. 2005. Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children's Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides; National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2005/8418/abstract.pdf; Reeves, Margaret, A. Katten, and M. Guzmán. 2002. Fields of Poison 2002: California farmworkers and pesticides. Pesticide Action Network, San Francisco , CA ; Schafer, Kristin S., M Reeves, S. Spitzer, and S. E. Kegley. 2004. Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability, Pesticide Action Network North America .

For information on pesticide residues on specific foods, see the Environmental Working Group Pesticide Report Card: http://www.foodnews.org/highpest.php?prod=PFR25J06&


Contact: PANNA

PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.

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