Like millions of farmworkers who have labored in America’s fields and orchards, I know what it’s like to grow the food we eat using toxic pesticides. At 12, I worked as a “flag man,” waving in crop-dusting planes that would swoop down close to the plants — and us workers — to blast out a foggy spray of toxins that killed every bug in sight.
Along with the bugs, we were also sprayed.
Nobody told me these clouds of pesticides were dangerous, so I didn’t even wear a handkerchief over my face. My father almost died one time when a hose broke and exposed him to toxic fumes while he was applying ammonia treatments on a farm.
Many thousands of farmworkers, and some farmers, have been hospitalized and developed chronic, life-threatening illnesses from the chemicals we use to grow our food.
The farmworkers who plant and harvest America’s food are on the frontlines of pesticide harm. Protecting farmworkers from toxic pesticides will require reducing industrial agriculture’s dependence on synthetic chemicals while expanding organic farming.
Consumers who choose organic food to protect themselves and their families from pesticide exposure also help to create a safer and healthier food system for everyone, from farm to table.
A new peer-reviewed study shows how much of an impact eating organic food can have on the body. Following four diverse American families before and after they went on an all-organic diet, researchers found that the levels of pesticides in people’s bodies decreased dramatically after just one week of consuming organic foods and beverages.
After an all-organic week, levels of all detected chemicals dropped an average of 60.5 percent with a range of 37 percent to 95 percent depending on the compound, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Research.
In the families they studied, levels of chlorpyrifos, a widely used and highly toxic pesticide, fell by 61 percent in one week. Government scientists have recommended banning chlorpyrifos because of its links to increased rates of autism, learning disabilities and reduced IQ in children. Research shows that these risks are highest for the children of farmworkers and for children who are born and raised near fields where chlorpyrifos is sprayed.
Having lived and worked in farming and migrant farmworker communities my whole life, I know many perceive organic food to be elitist. But there’s nothing “elitist” about healthy, toxic-free food: everyone has the right to safe, nutritious food and our society must make that a reality. In fact, low-income farmworkers are helping to lead the fight for organic agriculture because they know how dangerous our current industrial system is.
As president of the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association, I also know farmers want to take good care of the land and provide nutritious, safe food. These dedicated farmers and ranchers know just how costly pesticides are to their own bottom line, to the soil, air and water around them and to our health.
This new study is a powerful reminder that we must – and can – create a healthier food system for all of us. Choosing organic food reduces pesticide exposures in our own bodies and protects the health and well-being of the people who make our food possible: the farmworkers and farmers of America.
I know many farmers who are working hard to switch from so-called conventional food production using pesticides to organic farming that is in tune with what nature and our bodies require. Policies can help by supporting farmers trying to grow organic, expanding organic marketing programs and banning or reducing dangerous pesticides.
Consumers, too, hold a powerful key to unlocking change. When consumers stop buying food grown with toxic pesticides, farmers and policymakers will follow those signals. All of us must demand that our food system produce healthy and environmentally-responsible food without toxic chemicals.
I’ve spent my lifetime working and organizing in the fields. I know that we can, and must, transition to a system where healthy organic food is affordable and available to all. Given all we know about the damage pesticides do to our health and to our environment, isn’t it time to create this organic reality for all of us?