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Agricultural Justice

Introduction and Background

Sustainable agriculture must include "agricultural justice" as a key component. In the broadest sense of the words, agricultural justice is intended to ensure a workplace with fair wages and benefits, no discrimination or coercion, and protection from hazards, such as harmful chemicals, including pesticides. Acknowledging, respecting, and sustaining the workers who plant, cultivate, and harvest our food is central to the basic values and principles that advance sustainable practices.

Workplace Practices and Sustainability

Beyond Pesticides’ founders walked through agricultural areas in Florida, Texas, and California in the late 1970s, and talked with farmworkers about their sicknesses and miscarriage rates, and the lack of training, protective equipment, clean drinking water, and sanitation in the fields. They witnessed the profound failure of the marketplace and the regulatory system to protect the lives and well-being of farmworkers and their families — including the lives of young children who on a normal day sat on the edge of the treated fields with poisoned air, water, and food. At that time there was one page in the Code of Federal Regulations that prohibited re-entry into pesticide-treated agricultural fields until the sprays had dried or the dusts settled.

It was clear then, as it is now, that the political process ignores or even facilitates ongoing poisoning. The facts, including scientific information, alone and hearings before Congress do not change the practices and policies that harm farmworkers. To be meaningful, agricultural justice must be addressed as part of the social context in which the pesticide problem exists. To be truly sustainable, the changes that we promote with regard to pesticides and pest management must be crafted in the context of social realities. If government corruption or malfeasance, undue corporate influence, discrimination, racism or prejudice are contributing factors to the ongoing pesticide threat for farmworkers, we must engage on these broader issues as a part of our work to advance a sustainable future.

The pesticide problem is not unique to farmworkers, but they and their families shoulder a disproportionate burden of the hazards. Although choosing certified organic products in the marketplace eliminates nearly all of the hazardous pesticides on the farm, it does not ensure adequate working conditions, wages, and labor practices. The Agricultural Justice Project, and its Food Justice Certified labeling, addresses this gap in the organic marketplace, and producers should be encouraged by consumers to participate in this certification process.

Worker Protection Standard and Unsafe Exposure

Worker protection standards are set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). The 1974 regulations offered virtually no occupational safety standards for workers being exposed to highly toxic pesticides. The original standard was developed after field hearings in which EPA heard from growers, but not farmworkers. With the threat of litigation from the National Association of Farmworker Organizations and Migrant Legal Action Program looming in the late 1970s, the Carter Administration funded an effort, conducted by Beyond Pesticides’ executive director, to reach out to workers and collect data on their experiences with pesticide exposure and poisoning in the fields.

Through a series of field hearings in collaboration with the nongovernmental organization Rural America and EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, federal and state agencies heard directly from farmworkers. At the time, an agricultural commissioner in California said, “This is the first time I have ever really heard farmworkers get up and express their concerns, because our emphasis hasn’t been focused toward this area.” EPA then conducted an agency review of its worker protection efforts in 1983, and concluded that the regulations were inadequate to protect agricultural workers. However, it took until 1992 to update the Agricultural Worker Protection Standards (WPS).

The 1992 updates to the WPS were designed to eliminate or reduce exposure to pesticides, mitigate exposures that occur, and inform employees about the hazards of pesticides. Despite these intentions, the updated WPS still did not adequately protect farmworkers. These standards have been notoriously difficult to enforce, and require no record keeping to document whether the rules have been implemented and only minimal training that can threaten farmworkers and their families.

In the past, EPA has admitted that even with maximum feasible personal protective equipment and engineering controls, including all provisions required by the WPS, risks to workers still exceed EPA’s levels of concern. A 2008 study analyzing poisonings of pesticide workers between 1998 and 2005 concluded that in 30% of the cases of high levels of pesticide exposure, all labeling requirements, including those involving re-entry and PPE had been followed — clearly demonstrating that the WPS and/or labeling requirements are inadequate.

On September 28, 2015, EPA finally released its new regulation regarding farmworker pesticide safety, revising the WPS that had not been updated for more than 20 years. These revisions attempt to strengthen the standards through increased training for workers handling pesticides, improved notification of pesticide applications, and a first-time minimum age requirement for children to work around pesticides.

Farm work is demanding and dangerous physical labor. As the scientific literature confirms, farmworkers, their families, and their communities face extraordinary risks from pesticide exposures. Pesticide application and drift result in dermal, inhalation, and oral exposures that are typically underestimated. A 2004 study detected agricultural pesticides in the homes near to agricultural fields. According to a 2010 study, workers experience repeated exposures to the same pesticides evidenced by multiple pesticides routinely detected in their bodies. As a result of cumulative long-term exposures, farmworkers and their children, who often times also work on the farm, are at risk of developing serious chronic health problems such as cancer, neurological impairments, and Parkinson’s disease. Children, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report (2012), face even greater health risks compared to adults when exposed to pesticides. For more information, read our factsheet, Children and Pesticides Don’t Mix.

What More Can We Do?

Our food choices have a direct effect on those who, around the world, grow and harvest what we eat. This is why food labeled organic is the right choice. In addition to serious health questions linked to actual residues of toxic pesticides on the food we eat, our food buying decisions support or reject hazardous agricultural practices and the protection of farmworkers and farm families. See Beyond Pesticides’ guide to Eating with a Conscience to see how your food choices can protect farmworkers. In addition to choosing organic, it is important to consider food labels that create standards for farmworker safety and fairness. See below for more information and resources on how to uphold strong agricultural justice standards.

Pesticides and You Articles
Social Justice Labeling: Michael Sligh
This is a transcription of a talk given by Michael Sligh in 2014 at the 32nd National Pesticide Conference. Sligh is the founding member of the Rural Advancement Fund International (RAFI) USA, where he directs policy, research, and education on agricultural best practices, biodiversity, biotechnology, organic, identity preservation, and other food justice issues in the organization’s Just Foods Program. He is also the founding chair of the USDA National Organic Standards Board, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, and the National Organic Coalition. Sligh helped found the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) and the Domestic Fair Trade Association.

The Time is NOW for Strong, Federal Protections for Farmworkers
Published in Spring 2015, this article provides information on the improvements made to the 2014 Worker Protection Standards (WPS) proposed rule, in addition to providing recommendations that would strenghthen and improve the proposed rule.

Beyond Pesticides' National Pesticide Forum Videos
Agricultural Justice Initiatives Panel, 33rd National Pesticide Forum

  • Tirso Moreno, general coordinator, Farmworker Association of Florida
  • Leah Cohen, program coordinator, Agricultural Justice Project
  • Sean Sellers, senior investigator/monitor, Fair Food Standards Council
  • Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist/program coordinator, Pesticide Action Network North America

Pesticides and Farmworker Health Workshop: 33rd National Pesticide Forum

  • Elizabeth Guillette, PhD, associate research scientist, University of Florida
  • Joan Flocks, JD, director, Social Policy Division, University of Florida Levin College of Law
  • Geoffrey Calvert, MD, team leader, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Tyrone Hayes, PhD, professor, Integrative Biology, University of California Berkeley

Social and Environmental Justice in Agriculture Workshop: 33rd National Pesticide Forum

  • Tirso Moreno, general coordinator, Farmworker Association of Florida
  • Leah Cohen, program coordinator, Agricultural Justice Project
  • Margaret Reeves, PhD, senior scientist/program coordinator, Pesticide Action Network North America
  • Nataly Azcurra, member, YAYA Network of the National Farm Worker Ministry

2014 Forum: Social Justice Labeling from Food to Table

  • Michael Sligh, program director, RAFI-USA

2014 Forum: Social Justice in Sustainable Agriculture

  • Nelson Carrasquillo, executive director, El Comite de Apoyo, a los Trabajadores (CATA–The Farmworkers' Support Committee); board member, Beyond Pesticides
  • Ramon Ramirez, co-founder and president, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN)
  • Michael Sligh, program director, RAFI-USA
  • Caroline Cox, moderator, research director, Center for Environmental Health; board member, Beyond Pesticides

Related Articles
Protecting Farmworker Children from Pesticide Exposure
Worker Illness Related to Newly Marketed Pesticides — Douglas County, Washington, 2014

Farmworker Groups and Key Players
Campesinos sin Fronteras
Centro Campesino
Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Domestic Fair Trade Association
Farmworker Association of Florida
Farmworker Health and Safety Institute
Farmworker Justice
Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO
Farmworker Support Committee (CATA)
Lideres Campesinas
Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers United
United Farm Workers