The Media Got It Wrong: Farmworker Justice and Fumigant Use Are Consumer Concerns


Last week, Capital Public Radio, a National Public Radio station in Sacramento, reported on Driscoll’s commitment to start its organic seedlings organically, despite a federal exemption that allows organic strawberries to start with conventional seedlings.

This is an exemption many consumers don’t know about and a change that organic advocates have been campaigning in favor of for years. This story that started out celebrating a win for organic and raising awareness of a hidden challenge, ended out on a very unfortunate note. Correspondent Lesley McClurg says, “Lewis says even without the changes, consumers shouldn’t be concerned…. The hazards are to farm workers and people nearby who might be exposed to the drifting gas.”

As an organization engaged in education and advocacy around social justice issues, we are not new to this mentality, but it is rarely so blatant and it is especially disappointing coming from a major news outlet that is in a position to influence the way we discuss these issues.

Consumers should care when fumigants are sprayed.  Here are a few good reasons.

  • Those farmworkers who were so readily dismissed in the story are real people, not robots, and an estimated 10,000-20,000 of them are victims of pesticide poisoning each year in the U.S. Symptoms of acute pesticide exposure can include headache, vomiting, rashes, among others. Not a pleasant experience, and that is just the acute exposure and does not count long-term effects like increased risk of cancer.
  • Those people nearby briefly mentioned in the story include children living in agriculture communities. Pesticide Action Network notes that fumigants such as those used in strawberry fields are some of the most toxic agricultural chemicals and are particularly prone to drifting from the field.  Pesticide exposure in children is linked to learning disabilities and reduced IQ.
  • We are in the midst of a climate crisis. As noted in the story, fumigants’ sole purpose is to kill living things in soil. One of the best and simplest solutions we have to mitigate climate change is to take carbon out of the air and put it in the ground (regenerative agroecology). But that requires building soil fertility, not reducing it through toxic fumigants.

The good news is, despite what is implied in the reporting of this story, not only should consumers care, they do care. There is a growing awareness of issues facing farmworkers and a growing consumer demand for justice. This has led to the rise of certification and labeling programs in the U.S. such as the Equitable Food Initiative, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, and the Agricultural Justice Project. In addition, thousands of concerned consumers and advocates have shown support for improving the Worker Protection Standard, the federal guidelines aimed at reducing risk of pesticide exposure in farmworkers.

Now we just need to get the media to recognize that consumers should and do care when fumigants are blasted into soil and we can move on to celebrate the small victory that the story was supposed to be about.

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