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Daily News Blog

09
Jun

Highlighting the Connection Environmental Racism and the Agricultural Industry Through History

(Beyond Pesticides, June 9, 2022) A report from the Organic Center finds that people in U.S. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities endure a significant disproportionate risk of exposure to pesticides and subsequent harms. The report also contains a lesson plan that informs young activists on how to improve the food system. Many communities of color and low-socioeconomic backgrounds experience an unequal number of hazards, including nearby toxic waste plants, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and odors that lower the quality of life. Therefore, these populations experience greater exposure to harmful chemicals and suffer from health outcomes that affect their ability to learn and work. Doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and author of the report and lesson plan, Jayson Maurice Porter, notes, “Urban planning and city policy considers certain people in certain communities more or less disposable and puts them in harm’s way, giving them an uneven burden of experiencing and dealing with things like pollutants.” 

The father of environmental justice, Robert Bullard, Ph.D., defines environmental racism as any policy or practice that unequally affects or disadvantages individuals, groups, or communities based on their race. Dr. Bullard stated that, until the 1980s, environmentalism and pollution were separate. During the Jim Crow Era—succeeding slavery—segregation propagated disparities between black and white communities, causing the primary focus of justice issues to vary among the communities. Both the civil rights and environmental justice movements spread nationwide during the 60s and 70s. However, the two movements rarely coincided as the American environmental movement largely focused on preserving beautiful outdoor areas and ignored issues in urban environments. This separation created the perception among advocates for racial equality that environmentalism catered to white organizations and populations and ignored people of color (POC) and their struggles.

However, this does not mean environmental justice was completely void of addressing racial inequalities. Many early environmental justice leaders came out of the civil rights movement, bringing to the environmental movement the same tactics they had used in civil rights struggles—marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation, and nonviolent direct action. For instance, Warren County, NC., a poor, rural county, became the epicenter of the growing environmental justice movement—drawing nationwide attention to racial disparities in the siting of toxic waste sites. Unlike the collective action against the disparities in the location of toxic waste sites in the late 1960s, the Warren County case sparked a national debate about environmental racism. Warren County connected the dots between racial injustice, environmentalism, and public health disparities. New green policies for waste disposal and waste-to-energy incineration aimed to benefit the environment, but actively sacrificed the poorest communities.

Mr. Porter evaluated reports of adverse environmental and health impacts that agrochemical use (e.g., pesticides, fertilizers) causes in North America, particularly Mexico, Canada, and the South and West Coasts of the United States. In all North American regions, agrochemicals predominantly affect communities of color and low socioeconomic.

Southern United States

The report reveals that counties or cities with larger BIPOC populations encounter more pesticide exposure from manufacturing and use. Specifically, the U.S. agricultural industry spends roughly eight times more money on pesticides in rural regions where people of color (POC) comprise 40 percent of the population compared to counties where POC comprise less than six percent. After the abolition of slavery, mechanization and agrochemicals, like fertilizers and insecticides, replaced a lot of slave labor. However, these chemicals did not fully replace black laborers, who remained working on farms, increasing the burden of chemical use without protective equipment and educational support. The Mid-Atlantic region’s growing agrochemical industries supplied the south with pesticides and fertilizer for decades, with Baltimore, MD, quickly becoming the first epicenter of agrochemicals. Waterfront regions in the southernmost part of Baltimore containing high populations of BIPOC communities became an idyllic sacrifice zone for chemical manufacturing.

Western United States

During westward expansion, white settlers seized lands from dozens of Indigenous communities, like the Yokuts, Miwok, and Kawaiisu, importing migrant laborers to aid agricultural development. However, the migrant workers were POC, and most farmers of color could not participate in the agricultural development as landowners. Although as new agricultural technology grew, it served to concentrate wealth, industrialize farming practices, and advance practices and products that farmers and farm workers of color exposed to the occupational hazards of pesticides. Currently, nearly one-third of farmworkers live in California in regions of low-socioeconomic status and largely Latinx populations. However, these regions are not subject to pesticide laws that protect occupational workers and residents from exposure and subsequent health effects. Thus, the agricultural industry is able to use otherwise banned chemicals like chlorpyrifos for commercial use. Chlorpyrifos has been used intensively in agriculture (e.g., almond, apricot, cotton, and other crops) in the central California San Joaquin Valley for many decades. Despite California’s pesticide regulatory system and data on environmental protection, reports identify higher rates of asthma, cognitive disabilities, and developmental delays among children in San Joaquin Valley from maternal exposure to chlorpyrifos. 

North American Expansion

World War I and II aided in the expansion of arsenic-based insecticides as U.S. agricultural companies sought a new global market. California’s agricultural industry spread across the U.S. border into Mexico, establishing sites to experiment with different U.S.-made agrochemicals. Although leaders in both countries believed agrochemicals could be a solution to urban poverty and crop yields, these chemicals eroded financial protection and public health, especially in experimental regions. This report argues that agrochemicals helped the U.S. expand its power beyond national borders. Mr. Porter states, “[It is] important to really see how the United States has imperial relationships with so many different places, both within the United States and outside the United States. Environmental justice needs to move beyond U.S. exceptionalism.”

At the height of the Green Revolution in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning the world of pesticide exposure and associated harms. After the end of slavery, the U.S. relied on pesticides to attack pests and drive up yield. However, this reliance on pesticides resulted in a series of silent springs, where the environment is void of birds singing due to growing pesticide poisonings. Although Carson was not the first to highlight concerns involving arsenic pesticides (first-generation), she was one of the first to argue that DDT (second-generation organochlorinated pesticide) was the greatest pesticide threat to human and environmental health. Both chemicals are highly present in the environment, remaining in soil, plant and animal tissues, as well as water resources for decades.

Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), many environmental agencies have banned or restricted the use of pesticides like organochlorines, organophosphates, and carbamates for their devastating toxic—sometimes lethal—effects, particularly on vertebrates, including humans. However, the banning of DDT started a treadmill that resulted in new generations of pesticides (e.g., neonicotinoids, pyrethroids) replacing older ones that were deemed too hazardous or were no longer effective due to insect and weed resistance.  Although newer generation pesticides may be more target-specific, requiring lower chemical concentrations for effectiveness, they have over double the toxic effects on invertebrates, like pollinators. For example, systemic pesticides that coat seeds are applied to specific plants but cause indiscriminate poisoning through contaminated pollen, nectar, and guttation droplets.

A section of Beyond Pesticides’ recent mega-issue of Pesticides and You, “Retrospective 2021: A Call to Urgent Action,” is devoted to the inequities resulting from pesticide use. Section IV, “Disproportionate Pesticide Harm Is Racial Injustice: Documenting Victimization: Structural Racism,” reprises Beyond Pesticides’ 2021 coverage of environmental injustices. It also calls for urgent action re: federal and state “evaluations that go into toxic chemical regulation . . . to reform and replace the current regulatory decision-making process, which is empirically racist, with one that acknowledges and cares for those with the highest real-world vulnerabilities and exposure[s].”

The report’s findings are similar to other resources demonstrating disparities in protection from agrochemicals in low-income and BIPOC communities, yielding frequent instances of pesticide-induced diseases (e.g., respiratory illness, neurological disorders, endocrine/immune disruption, cancers, etc.). Although there are regulatory systems to evaluate and monitor pesticide use and exposure limits (i.e., the Federal, Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act [FIFRA] and The Food Quality Protection Act [FQPA]), pesticide-related illnesses continue to harm communities due to environmental racism that ignores people of highest risks or increased vulnerability due to preexisting health conditions—many associated with socioeconomic conditions. For example, federal pesticide law does not take into consideration the combined effect of high-exposure, high-risk occupations with the exposures that are endured as a result of pesticide use in residential areas, around the home and garden, parks, schools, and even residues on food, hair, and clothing. 

The report notes that although science, technology, and a shift to organic can aid in the reduction of surface-level food system issues, including growth and distribution, leaders must incorporate social justice into the agricultural industry for permanent structural change. Informing activists in BIPOC communities about the impact of agrochemicals on the community and environment can be a start to alleviating inequalities. However, changes in policy are required in the food system so that the burdens placed on people of color communities are no longer overlooked.

With the report’s findings, Mr. Porter established a lesson plan that “aims to engage with students in discussions about the origin of pesticides and how they affect poor, Black, and Latinx communities. By encouraging students to use history and geography, the lesson plan facilitates discussions about the ways industrial agriculture and agrochemicals may impact their own communities and surrounding environments[…]The lesson plan also invites students to consider whether environmental racism or environmental injustice has inspired any forms of grassroots environmental justice in their own cities or communities.”

The concept of a Silent Spring does not exist outside our reality—it is an ever-present threat. Forgoing toxic pesticide use for cosmetic purposes on lawns and landscapes is one of the easiest ways to stop polluting local waterways. You can make a change by eliminating pesticides on your property and working toward the passage of organic land care policies in your community. To get started, see Beyond Pesticides Tools for Change webpage. Beyond Pesticides will continue to monitor progress on inequities related to pesticides, agriculture, farmworker well-being, and health of BIPOC communities in the U.S. For current reporting on matters related to environmental justice, see Beyond Pesticides’ Daily News Blog EJ archives.

One important way to reduce human and environmental contamination from pesticides is to buygrow, and support organic. Beyond Pesticides advocates a precautionary approach to pest management in land management and agriculture by transitioning to organic. Furthermore, given the wide availability of non-pesticidal alternative strategies, families, chemical occupational workers, and the agricultural sector can apply these methods to promote a safe and healthy environment. For more information on the benefits of organic for both consumers and farm workers, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: The Organic Center, Food Tank

 

 

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