Pesticides, Heat, and the People Who Feed Us: Climate Change Is Making Farmworkers’ Dangerous Job Even Worse
By Rafter Ferguson, Union of Concerned Scientists
In a new report released this week, we show that climate change poses dire threats to farmworkers. While conversations around agriculture and climate change have increasingly focused on the devastating impacts of extreme weather, or ways in which farmers might help fight climate change, the farmworkers that are the backbone of our agricultural system have often been left out. This is a problem.
Climate change comes at farmworkers from many directions at once, making the dangers that they already face even worse. Our current laws fail to protect them. That’s why we dug into two major threats to the health and wellbeing of farmworkers: pesticides and heat. In doing so, we took a closer look at three states–California, Washington, and Florida—with among the highest numbers of farmworkers in the country, where labor-intensive agriculture is a particularly important part of the economy. We drew on national, county-level datasets on agriculture, farmworkers, and pesticides, as well as recent UCS work on extreme heat under climate change.
In short, we find that farmworkers’ health, safety, and dignity need to be among our top priorities as we deal with the impacts of climate change on agriculture. Here are six reasons why:
1. Farmworkers are a foundation of the US food system.
There are an estimated 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States. Farmworkers are distinct from farmers—they don’t operate their own farms, but they are hired to work on other people’s farms, and they do an estimated two-thirds of the agricultural labor across the nation. In particular, the production of fruits, vegetables, orchard crops, and animal products, all still depend heavily on farmworkers. These workers fill a demand for labor that others just won’t do. Without farmworkers, much of our food and farm system would grind to a halt.
2. Farm work is already one of the hardest, most dangerous and under-appreciated jobs.
Farmworkers are doing hard work, for low pay, under difficult and often dangerous conditions. Yet they remain largely invisible to so many who rely on them for three meals every day. In a history of legally enshrined racism that dates back to the 1930s New Deal legislation, farmworkers are excluded from many of the legal protections that apply to most other occupations, leaving them especially vulnerable to exploitation on the basis of spoken language, national origin, immigration status, race, socioeconomic status, and other issues.
3. Reliance on pesticides harms farmworkers and their families.
Pesticides are a major threat to the health of farmworkers. Unfortunately, right now the US agricultural system depends heavily on pesticides. The use of these toxic compounds as the dominant strategy to control pests has helped make today’s prevalent intensive monoculture farming possible—but it’s had terrible effects on farmworkers, their families, nearby communities, and the environment. Farmworkers and their families face both immediate and long-term health effects from pesticides—regardless of whether the farmworkers even work with pesticides directly. Long-term low-level exposure is associated with devastating chronic health issues, including cancer, diabetes, depression, neurodegenerative diseases, and reproductive issues.
4. For farmworkers, heat doesn’t have to be extreme to be dangerous.
As I’ve discussed previously, heat already poses a grave threat to farmworkers’ lives and livelihoods. Heat is a real risk for many workers: across all occupations, heat was responsible for the death of 815 workers and serious injury to more than 70,000 between 1992 and 2017. We know that even these figures underestimate the risk, as reports of deaths from heat-exacerbated causes (e.g. cardiovascular issues) often fail to include the role of heat. Research shows that data on farmworker injuries and deaths suffer from their own underreporting issues, but the best data available shows that farmworkers die from heat-related causes at 20 times the rate of all other occupations.
The National Weather Service provides guidance stating that outdoor workers become increasingly susceptible to injury when the heat index is above 90°F. But recent research has shown that due to strenuous labor, sun exposure, and heavy protective clothing, the risk for farmworkers starts to climb at a heat index as low as 80°F. In our report, we calculated the average number of days that exceed the lower heat safety threshold for every county in California, Washington, and Florida. In each state, we found that the top agricultural counties had more days of dangerous heat for farmworkers than the state average.
5. Heat and pesticides are worse than the sum of their parts—especially under climate change.
The dangers of pesticide exposure and heat stress interact and amplify in complex ways—especially under climate change. Climate change is dramatically increasing the danger of extreme heat, as reported by my colleagues. It is also likely to increase overall pesticide use, and at the same time make pesticides more dangerous to human health. Many crops will be exposed to new pests, and some existing pests may become more vigorous. At the same time, evidence suggests that the human body is more vulnerable to toxic compounds when under heat stress, and rising temperatures may accelerate the transformation of certain compounds into more toxic forms. To top it all off, protective clothing worn to protect against pesticides is stifling and dramatically increases the risk of heat stress.
6. Farmworkers deserve to work in dignity and safety, and the laws that are supposed to protect them are not up to the job.
In addition to farmworkers being excluded from many of the legal protections that other workers count on, laws addressing the specific threats of pesticides and heat are especially lacking. Pesticides are the responsibility of the US Environmental Protection Agency—and unfortunately, their process is badly flawed. In their risk assessments they unrealistically assume perfect compliance with safety regulations. EPA also fails to consider the potential impacts of protective gear on heat stress risks. To complicate matters, there are no federal requirements for mandatory pesticide use reporting, and the rate of pesticide injuries is underreported.
Similarly, there are no federal regulations to protect workers from heat. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has the power to set and enforce regulations to protect workers from dangerous conditions. But despite repeated recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (the first of which was issued almost 50 years ago!) they have failed to do so. At the state level, only Washington and California have adopted heat protection standards for outdoor workers.
Moving forward: Protect farmworkers. Transform the food system. Fight climate change.
Our report provides further evidence that we need to take transformative action on climate change. That means addressing the problem at the source and reducing heat-trapping emissions. Congress and the USDA should center and support farmers and farmworkers in developing and adopting practices that support healthy soils and mitigate heat-trapping emissions.
But climate change is here now–and that means we need to protect and support farmworkers and other vulnerable groups. We need OSHA, the EPA, and the USDA to enforce standards and administer programs that protect farmworkers from pesticides, heat, and other climate impacts like extreme weather.
While climate change is amplifying threats to farmworkers, those threats didn’t start with climate change. The fight against climate change can’t ignore the root causes of the systemic racism and exploitation that have marginalized and endangered farmworkers for so long. Congress needs to end the exclusion of farmworkers from the legal protections that other workers count on: minimum wage, overtime pay, the right to organize, and strong child labor laws.
In our response to the climate crisis, there is an opening that we cannot let slip by: climate adaptation in the food system is an opportunity to repair legacies of oppression and exclusion, rather than perpetuate them.