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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:
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&