Our cover story focuses on farm fields and orchards in Washington state, where the plentiful harvest has an ugly, hidden cost, with workers often dangerously exposed to toxic pesticides. It’s an outrageous situation that nonetheless is typical around the nation.
Between the lines, freelance writer Rebecca Clarren, who is a former HCN editor, finds larger themes — hypocrisy, class warfare and shades of racism coming down in the fields.
The story is a powerful indictment of American society. Imagine if the crops were picked by white, middle-class college students doing summer jobs, instead of by brown-skinned immigrants: If the white college kids had to work around pesticide spray and enter fields where toxic dust lingered, the regulations limiting their exposure would be much tougher and enforced more rigorously, the protective clothing and medical care would be better, the research into pesticide effects would be more aggressive.
But because the crops are tended by relatively powerless and often illegal immigrants, society looks the other way, tolerating a system in which several hundred thousand or more farmworkers suffer pesticide-related illnesses each year, and hundreds die prematurely, according to federal estimates.
It’s a story that belongs in High Country News, because along with our commitment to covering public lands, wildlife and other natural resources, we include people in the picture. And as we probably say a little too often, quoting a seminal Western writer, Wallace Stegner, we work toward the goal of creating “a society to match the scenery.”
We need to admit that we all depend on the people who are essential in producing our food cheaply. It’s time to treat them fairly and provide the basic protection they deserve.
The story also relates to the environmental movement. There is a network of farmworker activists working on pesticide exposure and labor issues, but not enough interaction between that network and the environmental movement.
Environmentalists have power in Congress and other political arenas, which they could exercise on farmworker issues, but that doesn’t happen often enough. HCN hopes to draw different camps together under one banner. At times in the past, by working together with more unity, Americans achieved real progress on the environment, civil rights, care for the poor and for others in need.
Farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides deserves that kind of attention. It’s an issue that has the potential to draw us together again, so we can gain power by working side-by-side for better conditions in the fields, and to right other wrongs in our society and environment.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.