Environmental Racism: The Plight of Farmworkers

Farmworkers are an essential part of daily life in the US. They bring food to our tables, and they constitute approximately one third of workers in a 200 billion dollar agriculture industry. Farmworkers are also some of the poorest and most invisible workers in our economy.

So who are our farmworkers? The majority, 72%, are foreign born. 35% of farmworkers reported that they can’t speak english at all. The average age of farmworkers is 36, and 40% reported only having completed elementary school. 48% of farmworkers do not have legal authorization to work in the United States. These statistics are from the National Center for Farmworker Health.

The Environmental Cost of Industrial Agriculture

Agricultural pollution is defined as the contamination that is released into the environment when we grow, process, transport, and distribute animals and crops. 

In 2018, it was estimated by the USDA that the agricultural industry in the US accounts for 10.5% of American greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture also uses pesticides and other chemicals that contaminate the soil and water. Waste from meat operations is collected in lagoons, and is not treated in the way that human wastewater is, and chemicals such as ammonia and nitrogen seep into the soil as well as surface and groundwater. 

While these things tend to impact poor, rural communities heavily, those that are most impacted are the farmworkers themselves.

A man standing in a field full of mist

Photo from Migrantclinician.org

Pesticide Exposure

Farmworkers are routinely exposed to pesticides during their work. This occurs due to residual pesticides on the crops they work with as well as directly, due to pesticide drift from the application of these chemicals to nearby fields. In 2017, 50 farmworkers fell ill due to acute exposure to multiple pesticides sprayed on a field nearby to the one they were working in. Additionally, since multiple pesticides were sprayed that day, it was difficult or impossible to determine which pesticides were responsible for the poisoning.

Pesticides are commonly applied from the ground, using a tractor with tanks and booms to apply the chemicals to the field. Farmworkers who mix and apply these pesticides are the most acutely impacted; these tractors are often open cab with little protection from the spray.

Pesticide exposure is cumulative and persistent. Some of these chemicals are bioaccumulative, meaning that they build up in the body over time, rather than being quickly eliminated from the body. Pesticide residues often cannot be washed off, and persist on the skin for months after exposure.

The effects of pesticide exposure vary widely. Acute exposure can result in irritation of the skin, throat, nose, and eyes, and in severe cases can cause blindness. Long-term exposure of pesticides is associated with cancers and other tumors, birth defects and reproductive problems, and nerve, kidney, and liver damage.

Exposure to pesticides is not limited to the fields. Farmworker housing is often located near fields and is substandard, and those who work in the fields bring pesticides into living spaces on their clothes and skin when they come home from work. This is referred to as “take-home exposure,” and it can have severe impacts on children.

In the Meat Industry

While workers in meat agriculture may not face the same exposure to pesticides that those in fields face, they deal with other dangers. Those who work with livestock are exposed to pathogens, dust and raw manure. Those who work with cattle have a greater risk of latent and acute tuberculosis due to exposure to bovine tuberculosis.

Poultry barns, where young birds are raised to be sold for meat, are particularly difficult environments. They are closed in, with fans installed not for ventilation but for temperature control. Workers are exposed to persistent dust in these environments. The dust is made up of particles from the dry feed, from the straw or wood chip bedding, from the feces of the birds, and dander from the birds’ feathers. Additionally, these dust particles can carry ammonia from the breakdown of the birds’ droppings. Exposure to this dust has been linked to acute and long-term respiratory illness in farmworkers.

Workers in cattle confinement experience similar dangers. They’re exposed to dust from dander, feed, and from the manure produced by cattle, as well as to gasses and pathogens in the confinement operation. Farmworkers in the meat sector have a greater risk of respiratory illness, including asthma, bronchitis, and COPD. They’re also at risk of zoonotic disease transmission, including swine and avian influenza strains.

The Cost Factor

The use of pesticides in modern agriculture, especially the use of multiple pesticides, is a means of reducing the cost of production for the farm owner. These pesticides avoid the necessity of spot treating individual plants or groups of plants when a disease or infestation is detected. They also eliminate the cost of having to weed fields. Pesticides are often applied as a preventative, reducing the cost of lost plants.

Confinement meat operations also are designed to reduce cost. It eliminates the need for rangeland, and makes the feeding and care of these animals more cost effective.

This does make our food cheaper, but the cost of food in America as a percentage of consumer goods expenditure is among the lowest in the world. Considering the importance of farmworkers to our food supply and our economy, we should rethink the practice of externalizing these costs of production onto one of our most vulnerable populations.

A woman standing in a field surrounded by farm workers, distributing masks

Photo by Shmuel Thayler - Santa Cruz Sentinel

Barriers to Justice

When we talk about these dangers, we may wonder why such persistently dangerous workplaces are allowed to exist. While some believe that the agriculture industry is over-regulated (the Trump administration actually proposed reduced agricultural regulation in 2020; this change was slated to take effect in December, but has been stayed by an injunction until April, 2021), the continuation of confinement operations and application of pesticides in crop agriculture is permitted to continue, despite significant risks. Pesticides with known links to cancers and other long term illnesses are still legal.

Regulation is further hampered by a lack of enforcement. The USDA doesn’t have sufficient inspectors to ensure compliance with existing regulations. Enforcement and reporting are often voluntary.

Farmworkers also have little recourse. Without the skills and command of the English language needed, even those with documented status may not have the opportunity to seek employment in a different field. Language barriers and the threat of joblessness and in some cases deportation may prevent them from reporting dangerous working and living conditions, and prevent them from seeking legal recourse.

Taking Positive Steps

Due largely to the hard work of farmworker’s rights organizations, we are seeing some change. In 2018, a federal court upheld the right of farmworkers to organize, allowing them to exert collective power in pursuit of their rights.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers are considered essential, but in some areas, as many as 40% tested positive for the virus. Riverside County in California has brought pop-up vaccination clinics to farm workers in an effort to better protect them.

But there’s more that we can do.

To help farmworkers, you can:

  • Follow a Local Farmworkers Group. These groups are your best source for information. They can help you understand the barriers that farmworkers face, and can often tell you which brands should be avoided to support strikes and other actions.
  • Follow Local Politics. State and local policies and laws play a large role in the recognition and enforcement of farmworkers’ rights. Align yourself with candidates that recognize the problems in the agricultural industry. If none of your candidates do, ask them why.
  • Buy Food Locally. Buying food locally gives you more control over which farms you support. You can also contact local farms and ask about working conditions there. You may be surprised how much food is produced in your local area.
  • Contribute to Farmworkers’ Rights Groups. Times are strange right now, and in some cases money is tight, but contributing money or time to these groups can really help them in their efforts.

Farmworkers are people who do work that is essential, dangerous, and low-paying. It would be impossible for us to live the lives we currently do without them. They deserve our help.

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