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Farmers, Farmworkers and Rural Communities

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While the pesticide industry spins organic food as elitist, the reality is that the most vocal advocates for a toxic-free food system are those on the frontlines of pesticide exposure: farmers, farmworkers and pesticide applicators who are exposed to toxic pesticides directly; rural communities whose children live and go to school near farms where toxic pesticides are sprayed; and low-income communities in the shadow of chemical manufacturing plants.

Despite increased consumer demand for food grown without pesticides, pesticide-intensive growing practices dominate agricultural production. Little is being done to protect the farmworkers who are routinely exposed to high levels of toxic pesticides in the fields where they work and in the communities where they live. Farmworkers can be exposed at levels hundreds of times higher than consumers’ exposure to pesticides. Farmers, farmworkers and their families have higher rates of acute poisonings, cancers, birth defects, asthma, infertility, autism and other neurological and reproductive effects.

Organic farming reduces farmer, farmworker and rural community exposure to toxic synthetic pesticides.

Pesticide Health Risks to Farmers, Farmworkers And Rural Communities

Agricultural workers

  • EPA estimates 20,000 acute pesticide poisonings each year among agricultural workers resulting in rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, coma, or death. This is likely an underestimate.
  • Pesticide exposure among agricultural workers is associated with increased risk of a large range of chronic diseases including non-Hodgkins lymphoma; leukemia; prostate, brain, lung, pancreas, colorectal, renal, and breast cancer; infertility; endocrine disruption; Parkinson’s and neurodegenerative diseases; bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory problems; and thyroid disease.
  • Farmworkers are excluded from many U.S. labor laws, and worker protection laws do not focus on reducing use of toxic pesticides.

Agricultural communities

  • Agricultural communities are exposed to higher rates of pesticides in drinking water and air.
  • Rural residents have higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.
  • Children living in agricultural areas are at higher risk for leukemia, brain cancer, autism, neurodevelopmental delays, attention problems, reduced IQ, and birth defects.
We can break free from the pesticide treadmill

Since the widespread introduction of pesticides to agriculture in the 1950s, experts predicted that insects and weeds would develop resistance. Worldwide, approximately 368 weed varieties and 540 insect species have developed resistance to pesticides. This has created a “pesticide treadmill” in which farmers spray more often and use more toxic pesticides to deal with resistant pests. Despite the increasing use of pesticides, farmers are losing more of their crops to pests today than they did in the 1940s.

Pesticide-intensive agriculture is a losing battle. Especially when research shows that reducing pesticide use can increase crop yields. Farmers who transition to organic agriculture get off the pesticide treadmill altogether. Organic farmers work with nature to disrupt pest cycles by using crop rotations, fostering natural predators of pests, increasing crop diversity and planting trap crops that draw insects to the edges of fields.

Organic Farming Is An Economic Opportunity For Farmers and Rural America

Along with creating a healthier rural environment, organic agriculture can bring economic wealth to farm country. Organic farming is more profitable for farmers, creates more jobs, and organic “hotspots” across the country are boosting household incomes and reducing rural poverty.

Data shows that more U.S. farmers want to transition to organic, but they need government policies and research that support organic farming. Congress subsidizes pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture to the tune of billions of dollars while organic programs are woefully underfunded. For example, less than one percent of federal agricultural research dollars go to organic farming. Currently, the US government’s food policy favors pesticide-intensive, monocrop agriculture while failing to provide adequate incentives to farmers to transition to organic and regenerative practices. 

As a result, U.S. farmers are losing out on the chance to feed Americans’ growing appetite for organic food, and our farms, rivers and rural communities remain soaked in toxic pesticides even as consumer demand for organic booms. We need policies that support fair pricing and fair contracts for family-scale farmers in order to see the increase in organic farming that we need to provide organic food for all.  

With smarter food and farming policies, we can expand organic farming across the country and make organic for all.