Berry Dangerous: Connecting Environmental, Reproductive, and Worker Justice

Posted on 7.04.2012 by Kelly

Although I am not really interested in patriotic celebrations of imperialist United States' “Independence Day,” I do love me some red, white, and blue desserts. Blueberries and strawberries feature prominently in said desserts, and to me berries and whipped cream are a sign of summer. You might be wondering how my love of berries is related to reproductive justice. The connection lies in the pesticides commonly used in the production of these fruits and the people who are exposed to these chemicals through their work or place of residence.

A couple years ago I lived in Maine, the largest producer of wild blueberries in the country, providing around 30% of the total United States supply. The state takes great pride in its blueberry harvest, with many festivals celebrating the tiny fruit occurring during the month of August. Recently I met a woman who formerly lived next to blueberry fields that were sprayed with a pesticide called azinphos-methyl (AZM). AZM is an insecticide which was developed from neurotoxins used during World War II. In humans it “binds up, blocks, or damages, the normal functioning of cholinesterase, an enzyme which is essential to the proper working of the nervous system.” In 2006, due to concern for worker health and ecological impacts of the pesticide, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to phase out AZM for agricultural use. However, it will not be prohibited for use on blueberry fields until September 30 of this year.

My friend who lived near the blueberry fields in Maine was pregnant while the fields were sprayed with AZM. Her baby was born with spina bifida, a neural tube disorder in which the spinal cord is not fully developed. Folate supplements prior to conception are recommended to reduce the chance of fetal development of this condition However, a folate deficiency is highly unlikely to have led to spina bifida in the case of my friend, as she eats a diet extremely high in leafy green vegetables and legumes, foods that provide a high intake of folic acid. Another person in the neighborhood also had a child with a neural tube disorder around the same time. According to a report published by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, “studies have found links between neural tube defects and home use of pesticides, living near cultivated fields, paternal occupational exposure to agrochemicals, and maternal agricultural occupation during early pregnancy, [while] others have associated neural tube defects with maternal residence within 1000 meters of pesticide application.” While my friend will never know exactly what led to the development of spina bifida in her baby, her story left me angry at the body burden inflicted upon people living and working in rural/agricultural areas.

Strawberries, which are grown extensively in my current state of residence, California, are another fruit typically produced in a highly chemical fashion. Methyl bromide is a chemical that is commonly used as a soil fumigant in strawberry fields, but was found to be an ozone-depleting substance and sanctioned to be phased out of use according to the Montreal Protocol in 1987. In the search for another, similar soil fumigant, a chemical called methyl iodide was approved by the state of California in 2010 for use in the strawberry fields. Scientists have found evidence* supporting increased risk of cancer, miscarriage, and fetal brain damage with exposure to methyl iodide. In late 2010 a group of environmental and farm worker organizations filed a lawsuit against the state of California to get the pesticide banned. As part of this lawsuit, documents from the Department of Pesticide Regulation were released, detailing the original decision-making process for the approval of methyl iodide. These documents showed that the state's “former top pesticide regulatory official dismissed safety guidelines suggested by her own staff scientists on the grounds that they were 'excessive' and too onerous for the pesticide manufacturer.” Due to increasing pressure from scientists, agricultural communities who passed bans on the chemical, and the coalition of groups pushing the lawsuit, the manufacturer of the pesticide decided to suspend the sale of methyl iodide in March of this year. This victory helped to protect farm workers and rural residents for now, but it is only a matter of time before another potentially dangerous pesticide is put on the market and into people's bodies.

The case of methyl iodide in California illustrates how little the government is to be trusted in acting in the best interest of the people rather than large corporations. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, the majority of farm workers in the United States are Latino/a and earn less than $10,000 a year, with around half being undocumented workers, a group of people continually oppressed by the US government's legacy of racism, classism, and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Let's stand together in solidarity with the people whose bodies pay the cost for our enjoyment of summer treats.

Some ideas that go beyond simply buying industrially produced organic berries:

Support the campaigns of organizations such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the United Farm Workers, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Express your rage at racist program such as the “Secure Communities” deportation program.

Plant a community garden where people can join together in small-scale ecological food production.

Resist against pesticide corporations such as Dow, Bayer, and DuPont, companies which are also heavily invested in the military industrial complex.

Post your other suggestions for supporting environmental health and migrant justice in the comment section!

*Check it out, this article was written by Amy about methyl iodide when she was an intern with the Los Angeles Times in 2009!