June 14, 2015
I spent most of last week on a mini book tour to promote my new book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. It was fun and pretty well received at all four of the West Coast locations. In Berkeley, CA a skeptical gentleman asked me to talk a bit about the case for eating organic food. My answer omitted something that was extremely important for several other people in the audience: You should look for foods that have not been sprayed with chemicals because of the risk they pose for agricultural workers. Less concerned about their own health and safety, at least two people in a rather small audience took me to task for not making this seemingly obvious ethical point.
I must say that my first reaction was to push back. Agricultural pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or as we farm insiders like to call it FIFRA. (Try saying “fifra” out loud. It’s fun!) It may seem like this list of poisons—to which we could add herbicides—are going to be inherently dangerous. Linguistically they all seem to be in the same family with homicide.
I periodically find myself applying something called Naftin™ to the fungus on my feet, so I guess I should confess that I’m not totally down on fungicides, at least. But maybe that has relatively little to do with food ethics.
The thought that was actually running through my head was an unverified story I heard a few years back: that some larger organic growers were bringing back the short hoe, known among migrant workers as el cortito. Here’s a quote from a PBS webpage for The Fight in the Fields:
In the late 1960s and 1970s, el cortito was the most potent symbol of all that was wrong with farmwork in California: The tool was unnecessary, and farmers in most other states had long switched to longer hoes. Growers argued that without the control the short hoe offered, thinning and weeding would be mishandled, crop losses would mount, and some farmers would go bankrupt. As he prepared to take on California farmers, Jourdane quizzed many physicians—including Cesar Chavez’s back specialist—who said that without a doubt, the hoe was responsible for the debilitating back pain experienced by many of their farmworker patients.
Let me repeat the word “unverified”. The quote above explains why a grower might want to do this, but I have no hard evidence that it’s being done. Carefully regulated use of the more benign pesticides can save some of the “stoop labor” involved in farming, and I rather think that there are a at least a few cases where concern for the interests of farmworkers would run counter to the intuitions of my critics.
Then I reminded myself that the larger history of pesticide regulation has involved both manufacturers and industrial farmers relying on the difficulty of proving that exposure to agricultural chemicals harms farmworkers to resist “careful regulation.” And I remembered Angus Wright’s classic book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez. Wright recounts an episode of pesticide abuse accompanied by utter disregard for the health and safety of farmworkers. So I decided to bite my tongue and simply agree with the sentiments being expressed by the audience.
I’m glad I did. The book tour comes to mid-Michigan on June 22. Look for me at Schuler Books in Okemos at the Meridian Mall around 7:00 pm.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University