One morning many years ago, my best friend and I put cameras and microphones in the back of my jeep and drove to the nearest farm field. Our mission was simple yet daunting: document farm work, officially become filmmakers and show our movie (El Field trailer – https://vimeo.com/13690726) in theaters as soon as possible.
We were young and we were dead broke, but we were serious. We wanted to make visible the agricultural field and the people behind the food we eat. And that’s also the idea behind the annual National Farmworker Awareness Week, which starts today.
Our video project took us into the middle of a broccoli field, walking towards a tractor armed with conveyor belts and dozens of farmworkers. The men and women, all Latinos, worked in unison in a smooth assembly line. It was beautiful. While some swiftly cut the bonsai-looking plants, others tied stalks with a machine, and then off the broccoli went into a box.
More than 85 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat are handpicked by men, women and children, mostly Latinos, whose work is as underappreciated as it is dangerous.
The squad manager—or mayordomo—kindly allowed us to record. And we did until we ran out of batteries and I realized that I had lost my car keys in the field—but that’s another story. So for a few hours I witnessed how farmworkers choreographically bent, cut, picked and packed over and over and again. It was grueling labor, but none hesitated in their movements, and frankly, I don’t remember any of them taking a break.
During National Farmworker Awareness week, the country honors the 2.5 million farmworkers in the United States who are working the fields from sunrise to sunset. This week is about raising awareness of farmworker conditions, and how farmworkers provide so much for our country.
Their contribution is remarkable. More than 85 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat are handpicked by men, women and children, mostly Latinos, whose work is as underappreciated as it is dangerous. Indeed, the hands and bodies that grow our food face risks day in and day out, to the point that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries.
Farmworkers are constantly exposed to potential transportation incidents, like tractor overturns. But farmworkers also face a stealthier danger—pesticides. Every year, doctors diagnose up to 20,000 poisonings among agricultural workers—enough people to populate the average rural American town. And that’s only what’s reported.
Research shows that pesticide exposure poses serious short- and long-term health risks to children and adults. The immediate results of acute pesticide poisoning can include rashes, vomiting and death. In the long-term, pesticide exposure has been associated with increased risk of cancer, infertility, neurological disorders and respiratory conditions. Pesticides also pollute the air and water, a burden disproportionately borne by rural communities and farmworker families.
Though the dangers are clear and ongoing health impacts to farmworkers are widely documented, one of the first things Trump’s EPA did was delay key pesticide safeguards that Big Agriculture said were too costly. In December, the EPA said it wanted to roll back recent improvements to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard and its sister set of standards, the Certification of Pesticide (CPA) Rule. These are the only federal rules that protect farmworkers from pesticides.
Earthjustice—which has long fought alongside farmworker groups to strengthen pesticide safeguards—is proud to be working on how best to oppose these assaults on public health. Just last week we stopped the EPA from delaying the CPA rule that sets age restrictions for those working with the most toxic pesticides. (Yes, kids working with pesticides is still a thing.) But attacks are likely to continue under Trump’s reckless agenda and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who’s keen in gutting farmworker protections that took years to be approved in the first place.
We can’t let this happen.
The people who grow our food deserve the same health protections that you and I enjoy—period. Because being poisoned by pesticides is not part of their job description, or anyone’s job description for that matter. This week is a good time to think hard on that simple fact. But more significantly, this National Farmworker Awareness Week is a good time to take action. So call your elected official, reach out to the EPA and urge them to preserve pesticide rules. Like the rest of us, farmworkers deserve a healthy and safe work environment.
Alejandro Dávila Fragoso is the Bilingual Press Secretary at Earthjustice (earthjustice.org).
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