Safe Agriculture Safe Schools (SASS) is an affiliate branch of the larger coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform (CPR), a public action group dedicated to the reformation of the pesticide regime currently used in Californian agricultural fields. As a student intern this past semester my role varied with the ever changing needs of the organization, from public outreach and education to driving up to Sacramento to participate in government agency meetings as a SASS member. During my time working with SASS and CPR I have developed an acute awareness of the failings of local municipalities, state agencies, and indeed the national government around the regulation of pesticides. These failings seem to illuminate the class discrimination and environmental racism inherent in the policy decisions made about pesticides. This is not novel to the regulation of pesticides, it is a symptom of the neoliberal order, of the global neoliberal capitalist structure that David Harvey argues has “either restored class position to ruling elites, as in the United States and Britain, or created conditions for capitalist class formation, as in China, India, Russia, and elsewhere” (Harvey, pg. 34). With the restoration of class order comes subjugation and discrimination of anyone disparate from the ruling class. Neoliberal capitalist imposition in the last twenty to thirty years has provided little global economic stimulus, while entrenching and strengthening the preexisting class divides in global society. Harvey, in his article “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction,” asserts that the system does this through a process of privatization, financialization, the subsequent management and manipulation of crises, and lastly state redistributions. This procedure is helped along on the international scale by global powers, such as the U.S. and Great Britain, so as to strengthen the global and national ruling classes while simultaneously weakening the proletariat. Neoliberalism presupposes the false idea that “human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade” (Harvey, pg. 22). The falsehood of this statement is evidenced many times over, and the abuse of power that is pesticide regulation is just one small slice of the larger global problem.
Environmental racism includes many aspects of discrimination and racism, the predominant of which are “the disproportionate exposure of racial/ethnic minorities to various forms of environmental degradation, a disregard for their vision of resource use, exclusion from environmental decision-making both by the state and mainstream environmental organizations, and less rigorous enforcement of environmental regulations and protections than Anglo communities receive” (Pulido, pg. 14). The latter two points are of particular concern to this paper as they hit at the heart of the extrapolation of pesticide regulation as environmental racism and class discrimination. It is not necessarily any particular governmental or regulatory body’s action that constitutes this environmental racism and discrimination, but their specific refusal to act in order to properly protect a highly at risk minority population. “A growing body of literature indicates that resident farm families, hired farmworkers, and their children are among those most highly exposed to pesticides” (Eskenazi, pg. 410). Adding to this risk is the transience of many migratory farm workers, as well as the lack of economic stability that goes hand in hand with the job description and necessitated mobility to meet agricultural workforce demand. Both of these aspects make farm workers a highly exploitable population for employers. Being a highly exploitable population should also mean that lawmakers are on high alert for grievances committed against them, but they are not. At SASS we are fighting for this recognition under the California Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA) in the form of a ban on Chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide used throughout California on various different crops. It is the number one single insecticide used in the world, with around half a billion dollars in sales each year and approximately a million pounds used annually in California. There is now a large body of scientific work concerning the effects of chlorpyrifos, all of which now point to clear health effects if exposed at an early age and especially in cases of chronic long term exposure. With “reasonable evidence that even subtoxic exposure to chlorpyrifos during the critical period of brain development could produce cellular, synaptic, and neurobehavioral aberrations in animals” (Eskenazi, pg. 412), you would think policy makers would take action. That was exactly the opposite of what SASS members and the other community members in attendance saw at a Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) public hearing on Chlorpyrifos in September of 2016. The DPR determined the science was out, calling for a review process that could push back action taken on the chemical until 2019. This chemical was banned for home use in 2000 due to brain-harming impacts, but since it is primarily used for agricultural purposes naturally the health of farm workers and their families was ignored to accommodate agro-business.
Pesticide regulation is as new an idea as the pesticides themselves, all developed in the wake of significant scientific advancements during and after the second world war. Almost all of the original pesticides used in agriculture were developed as chemicals of war before their civilian use in food production, with subsequent versions of these chemicals being modifications of the original forms (Nash, pg. 204-205). As such it is fair to say all modern pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and the like are derived from chemicals intended to kill humans, which now are used to kill animals, insects, plants, and all sorts of agrarian pests. Shortly after the use of pesticides began to increase dramatically in the United States, most specifically in California, the farm workers started to push back. Although there is a good deal of common knowledge about the United Farm Workers of California (UFWOC) and their struggle for better working conditions and pay, little emphasis is usually placed on one of their central struggles: advocating against pesticide use. “The UFWOC initiated numerous lawsuits which sought not only to ban specific pesticides, but also to change the regulatory conditions under which they were used. For example, the UFWOC brought the first "community right to know" lawsuit in California, and perhaps the nation, in 1968” (Pulido, pg. 15). The UFWOC was at the forefront of the fight against pesticide application in the fields, which makes sense considering they embody and advocate for the population most affected by this use. Pesticide regulation advocacy wasn’t just an aspect of their platform either, it was a critical component in many of their campaigns as well as an integral part in agreements made with growers at the collective bargaining table (Pulido pg. 16). The UFWOC continued to be a voice in the dark for farm workers and their families until the organizational tensions of the union caught up with the message. Bardacke asserts, in his article “The United Farm Workers From the Ground Up,” that by appeasing the realists of the union and those in opposition to it, by purging the union of its left leaning ideals and idealists, and by tailoring its strategies to what its supporters deemed acceptable and not what was effective in combating the growers and the system as a whole the union defeated itself. Shortly thereafter many of the environmental protections the union had fought for were quickly dismantled. More important than this history, however, are the implications that follow from it. There is a clear necessity for firm and unyielding union/outside pressure on growers to maintain the advances in social and economic justice for farm workers, seeing as when this pressure wanes all the advances made, like those by the UFWOC, are quickly scaled back by growers and their political allies.
The environmental injustices felt by California agricultural workers are also felt around the world. “Environmental problems and social justice problems tend to be conceived of as “local,” but they must be analyzed at the regional, national, and international levels in order to expose the material and political conditions through which they are constituted” (Wolford, pg. 217). This speaks to the exploitations felt by the masses at the hands of the global elite on their quest for complete neoliberal capitalist imposition. In a case study of the Brazilian Cerrado, a large, historically rural region in Brazil, the transition to a neoliberal capitalist system was marked by exploitation and environmental racism that mirrors the experiences of California farm workers. After a military takeover in 1964 the door was, and would remain for over two subsequent decades, open to the new government to institute “rural development that capitalized on, rather than restructured, inequality in the countryside” (Wolford, pg. 219). As was explained by Harvey, first came the privatization of previously public land, next the commodification and subsequent selling off to private agricultural investors of the land. After years of large scale agricultural development in the cerrado sizeable inequities in land distribution have been created, with modern export farmers operating on huge tracts of land co-existing with millions of poor, landless farm workers. “The environmental justice problem in the cerrado is one in which wealthy large-scale farmers have access to land and--whether intentionally or not--their presence furthers environmental degradation in the region” (Wolford, pg. 232). The environmental injustice evident in this region in Brazil is along a clear class divide that serves to further emphasize the importance of socioeconomic status in determining an individual’s freedom from discrimination and racism. Adherence to the Neoliberal capitalist formula when developing the Brazilian cerrado exemplifies a feature of this economic theory: it requires exploitation and discrimination in order to function. Likewise, flowing from the transition to this economic system comes environmental racism in the form of environmental degradation, seen in both Brazil and California.
Environmental racism and class discrimination are clearly at work in pesticide regulation in California, underlying the political inaction around it. “It is now widely accepted that inequalities of class and race are tightly interwoven with uneven exposure to environmental risks” (Wolford, pg. 213). This understanding is deepened when you take a look at California pesticide regulation, which today continues to enable growers with a multitude of pesticides approved for application. The body of work that is slowly accumulating around chronic exposure to pesticides and the health effects in humans is culminating in a frightening scientific consensus that even minute long-term exposure to many of the regularly used pesticides and other agricultural chemicals in the fields can have dire health effects for infants and young children (Eskenazi, pg. 410-412). This is an alarming finding, and with a growing scientific consensus should be spurring expedited government action on the issue. Instead all we see is bureaucratic red tape and continual feet dragging to avoid upsetting agricultural practices and the existing status quo.
Fortunately, progress is made when the community comes together in continued opposition, as has been seen in the past with the UFWOC, and recently with my experience working with SASS. Upon making two visits to Sacramento in the past academic semester I have witnessed first hand the power of grassroots organizing, public education and mobilization, and lobbying government officials to actualize change. After a disappointing result at the DPR public hearing SASS and California farm workers had a victory, albeit small, at the public Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) meeting. This body of CEPA has the ability to evaluate and make judgements on particular chemicals, however it does not have the ability to take action on these assessments. By the end of this meeting in late November of 2016, and with a unanimous vote, OEHHA opted to label chlorpyrifos as a known reproductive and developmental toxin following a lengthy public comment session. Both Dow Chemical (the company that produces chlorpyrifos) and a mix of concerned community members and activists spoke, showing that sometimes social power does indeed win out against economic might. Although the current policies surrounding pesticides in California do incontrovertibly show class discrimination and environmental racism towards farm workers and their families it doesn’t mean change can not be made to rectify these wrongs. As this struggle continues, the deeper revolt against the neoliberal capitalist system that enables and perpetuates these inequities also persists with the hope that class discrimination and environmental racism so embedded in this system will eventually be diminished and one day eradicated.