Farm to Table
How to make it healthier and safer -- for everyone
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
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Farm To Table
If there is a TLDR; to this rant it’s this:
America has a well-documented history of relying on disposable farmworkers. And as climate change makes that job becomes ever-more dangerous (which is really saying something!), landowners, elected officials, and corporate powers remain disinclined to protect, much less support, the hands that literally feed them.
So we’re going to have to make them do it.
Look: After the hottest June in recorded history, July isn’t faring much better. So many regions are cooking, and it’s important to remember how interconnected our climate and weather systems are. Carbon emissions don’t respect borders.
El Niño is here, finally, and while there’s lots of talk (online at least) about how devastatingly hot the oceans are — something we’re stupidly, usually prone to ignoring, because most of us do not live in the oceans — I’m here today to vent specifically about the inexcusable broad lack of protections for farmworkers on land, why it matters to all of us, and what the hell we can do about it.
Per a whole shitload of research, farmworkers in the US are something like 35x more likely to die of heat than other workers.
Your gut response might be, “Yes, but isn’t that obvious, they’re outside exposed to the elements, and also pesticides?” and I’d say “Exactly.”
Odds are you’re working from home, so take a look around your kitchen.
Put your hands on some cherries, grapes, strawberries, oranges, or peaches.
Pick one up.
Where did it come from?
Who picked it?
What sort of conditions — from heat to pesticides — were the crop and crop picker exposed to?
And what happens if that person suffers, or even dies because of those conditions? Would you notice?
What if I told you these essential workers didn’t have to die — or even come close to it — but that generations of bad guys have proven they don’t care if they do?
Let’s catch up a bit.
Ignoring for the sake of brevity the myriad macroeconomic arguments about America’s two hundred and forty-six-ish years of slavery, understand that — like I said in the intro — we built this city on rock and roll enslaved labor.
That fine tradition continues today, adjusted slightly:
We no longer directly steal people en masse from their countries and sell them on the waterfronts of New Orleans, Charleston, and New York. That (formally, at least) ended after Lincoln, by way of Grant and Sherman, kicked the shit out of the Confederacy.
We spent the next couple hundred years doing Reconstruction denying former slaves and their descendants any real participation in the wealth game, while the rest of us industrialized everything inside our borders, warming the entire planet, pretty pretty pretty unevenly.
We needed new farmworkers, though, since we obviously still eat food. The problem is: we don’t totally know how to grow food without what is basically free labor?
Enter: Mexico and friends.
Our current generation of farmworkers — The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates 70% of agricultural workers in the US were foreign-born — go through journeys from hell to come here just to die in the sun, from one boiling country to another.
The legacy of slave labor remains in a bazillion ways, including how farmworkers are mostly unprotected because a bunch of racist Southern politicians elected by racist Southern plantation owners decided not to include farmworkers in the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.
So we don’t call farmwork “slavery” anymore, and farmworkers are far less likely to be Black, but that doesn’t mean the workers that pick and package our food 1) didn’t come from somewhere else and 2) aren’t intentionally expendable.
Whereas 98% of rural land in America is currently owned by white people, The Center for Migration Studies estimates 283,000 of our current farmworkers are undocumented immigrants who — despite the efforts of many awesome folks in the Action Steps, above — have no clear path to citizenship, and no real health protections, as we’ll see below.
Probably half of the undocumented farmworkers are in California, and the rest are spread among the Midwest and South, where the ancient soil, once plankton — The Black Belt — is so goddamn rich it spawned the bulk of all that slavery and, on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, an enormously fascinating and popular Twitter thread from Latif Nasser, co-host at Radiolab.
I was going to share Warming Stripes images for every state without farmworker protections, but it turns out that’s almost every state, so here are a few relevant ones:
Anyways — the point is: none of this is an accident, but now, with the climate crisis here, our oceans, land, crops, and the people who tend to all of them are in deep shit.
Let’s talk briefly about what heat does to the body.
You can pause here to read Jeff Goodell’s new book, The Heat Will Kill You First, or you can stay with me and read however briefly about the work of Roxana Chicas, an El Salvadorian-born immigrant nurse-researcher from Emory University who’s spent the past decade or so investigating the effects of heat on farmworkers’ health.
Besides nausea, muscle cramps, crippling headaches, vomiting, and fatigue, there’s this, as documented in The Washington Post:
“One of (Chicas’) studies, published in 2018, collected blood and urine samples from 192 farmworkers over 555 workdays during the summers of 2015 and 2016 to measure hydration and kidney function.
They found that, on any given day that the workers were tested, 33% of them had incurred kidney injury and that the likelihood of injury increased with the heat index.”
I feel like this is enough data to move on to how we’re choosing not to protect them from these risks, which, again! are opportunities to do something different.
Let’s kick this section off by recalling how dangerous it can be for undocumented workers (in any industry) to call attention to their status unless they absolutely have to.
So we should assume there is a fair bit of suffering and/or death that simply isn’t being counted. From heat, and from pesticides.
Ahh yes, pesticides. It may not surprise you that the same agency is responsible for approving pesticides and enforcing their safe use.
Last year, Civil Eats (which you should absolutely subscribe to) highlighted a lawsuit and a bunch of reports revealing how OSHA does little to enforce pesticide safety rules, leaving workers with damaged eyes, torched skin, and children born with defects — all for a better tomato crop.
To protect themselves, because no one else will do it, farmworkers are often advised to wear long pants and long sleeves to protect against pesticides, which is about as helpful as school kids hiding under their desks from a nuke.
Where are the feds, you ask?
Well, versions of Congressional bills that amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and provide for overtime pay have been introduced over the years, only to flounder. A new one — the Fairness for Farm Workers Act — is out now, but — and this will surprise you — it’s seeing little enthusiasm from the right.
Two years ago, the Biden administration and OSHA actually “announced” “plans” to “develop” new rules to protect workers from heat-related illnesses. It is July 2023, two years into Biden’s (pretty successful industrial) climate administration and those rules do not yet exist.
Meanwhile, Congress continues to negotiate this year’s Farm Bill, one of the most ridiculous and enormous policy instruments on the entire planet.
Renewed every five years like some bizarre pagan ritual and due again this very September, the Farm Bill has for a hundred years required members of Congress (and a gazillion lobbyists) to wrestle together the country’s agricultural and nutritional priorities into a sprawling package that mostly benefits monocrops and white landowners, who (still! in this economy!) own 98% of rural land in the United States.
Many groups are pushing for this year’s version to be a “climate” bill, which is kind of meaningless, since climate is everything, but the point is clear: shit’s changing fast, and we’re not doing enough.
The 2023 version of the Farm Bill should reckon with how much has changed in the last five years — including hotter nights and changing frost dates in the southeast, and the on-going decertification of the West, briefly interrupted by biblical rains this winter.
But despite leaving 1.3 million acres unplanted in 2022 due to drought conditions, leading to $3 billion in losses, California isn’t alone in all of this. Not even close.
Florida’s citrus crop has migrated north to Georgia, whose own peach crop got crushed this year. Texas is dry as hell. Across the country, corn, cotton, rice, olives, wheat, and other row crops have been punished by drought in recent years.
All of those losses have sent insurance payments through the roof, and all those checks might just be keeping industrial farmers from moving to more climate-friendly farming practices (if this sounds like coastal, floodplain, and fire-threatened real estate insurance markets, you are paying attention).
So what’s the new Farm Bill got planned?
On the docket: paying farmers use more of those climate-friendly conservation practices. Yay!
Not on the docket: Actually moving subsidies from monocrops and ridiculously high-input farming to more diversified production, like legumes.
Will armies of competing lobbyists build a bill that recognizes the immense change on our doorstep, and that plans for — and even tries to change — the future? Probably not! But at this rate, a hell of a lot is going to change before the next bill in 2028, so it would be prudent?
Subsidizing climate-friendly farming practices like cover-cropping, utilized by Indigenous peoples since the beginning of time, would be a great start. Funding is growing for those methods and others, like hedgerows and silvopasture, but it’s a drop in a very hot ocean.
Meanwhile, ”86% of Indigenous (farming) communities lacked a single financial institution to access loans or capital within their borders.”
And because billions of the Farm Bill’s sweet cash still go straight to traditional commodities, industrial farms and their owners, small farms continue to have an impossible time getting insurance and staying in business, much less competing with the big boys.
The Farm Bill has long recognized that shit happens, of course, which is why it provides farm owners with insurance for crop loss due to drought etc. Catastrophic peach losses in Georgia? Compensated with a natural disaster declaration.
How come farm owners (mostly for row crops, not peaches, to be fair) get annual protections from crop loss due to climate change, but the pickers don’t?
What happens when that same drought — or storms, or floods, or wildfire smoke — causes farmworkers (again, mostly undocumented immigrants) to lose their jobs?
Well, they certainly couldn’t afford housing any longer, which brings us to housing.
Housing is a catastrophic problem nationwide, but especially in California, and ESPECIALLY for 400,000-800,000 underpaid farmworkers who harvest the bulk of our country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, “77% (of whom) live in overcrowded or extremely overcrowded conditions, with multiple families sharing bedrooms, living rooms, garages, and other spaces”.
The state has committed hundreds of millions of dollars towards migrant and farmworker housing, but it’s nowhere near enough.
Food is pretty hard to come by, because straight-up undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for SNAP assistance. There are a number of groups of non-citizens that are eligible, but the caveats involved are ridiculous.
Surrounding all of it is the never-ending heat.
Never-ending because the average number of days spent working in unsafe conditions is expected to double by mid-century.
Never-ending because so few states — California, Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota among them — have farmworker protections.
Never-ending because there are actual monsters in the world like Greg Abbott who rescinded mandatory water breaks in the middle of a historic heat wave.
Never-ending because farmworkers are often paid by the piece, not by the hour. Taking breaks in the shade = lost income.
“Severa would push herself to work faster, through sweat and thirst to exhaustion, even a feeling of suffocation, because the heat exacerbates her asthma. She knew working so hard in the heat made her feel ill, but if she wasn’t cutting, she wasn’t earning money. Fern cutters are generally paid by the bunch, not by the hour — Cruz gets 45 cents per bunch, 20 fern sprays to a bunch.”
In the early COVID era, California prioritized vaccines for farmworkers — finally, temporarily “essential workers” — as the virus simply ravaged their ranks.
Are they essential fucking workers, or not?
Why is it this way? Greed. Power. Lobbying to buy more power.
Undocumented workers may not have much power — but the rest of us sure fucking do. Unions may be at their lowest point in a century, but literally today, this week, this month, more and more workers are fucking done.
Labor journalist Hamilton Nolan wrote in this week’s How Things Work:
“(Amazon) is quite willing to spend any amount of money and piss upon the spirit of the law in order to prevent their employees at one single warehouse from getting a collective bargaining agreement—something they are absolutely entitled to by American law and, more generally, by universal human rights.”
Sara Nelson by way of Mother Jones by way of Hamilton Nolan, again: “The capitalists say there is no need of labor organizing but the fact that they themselves are continually organizing shows their real beliefs.”
If industry lobbying groups and the Sun Valley Conference aren’t organizing, I don’t know what is.
These trillion dollar corporations and billionaires simply do not care about you, and they are constantly — constantly, relentlessly — putting enormous pressure on state and federal legislators to put you in harm’s way in exchange for profits.
All of it should remind of you a certain industry that rhymes with fossil fuels, reported by friend of the pod Amy Westervelt:
"The oil and gas industry is dangerous for its workers, with a fatality rate seven times higher than the national average, according to a 2013 study."
You know who does give a shit, though? We do.
There’s a reason metaphors like “grassroots campaigns” and building “from the ground up” are so prevalent.
Without a firm foundation, compounded across people and time, nothing meaningful gets done. Which is exactly why we’re all here today.
Is there any more apt example than protecting the hands that feed us?
You know and I know that if we stop new emissions, new warming stops, too.
And along the way, we are going to attack every step of the farm to table supply chain.
73% of Gen Z’s told McKinsey they’re concerned about the environmental impact of what we eat. Let’s use the Action Steps above to show them how we give a shit.
If coral reefs are our measuring stick for hotter oceans, outdoor workers are like canaries in the climate coal mine. What happens to them is terrible but not in isolation — the heat and storms and flooding are coming for everyone.
So it’s going to take everyone to turn back the tide.
Unions on the whole may be suffering, but literally this week they have received more coverage than they have in a very long time.
Movie and TV studios — collectively organized as the AMPTP — think they can make movies and TV without writers and actors. So the writers and actors unions — both of which I’m a member of — are on strike. Anonymous representatives of the studios said “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses”.
Fun story, fuckers: There’s no “content” or “profits” without actors, no acting without scripts, no scripts without writers, no writers without a livable income.
How does UPS think 24.3 million packages per a day are going to get delivered when 340,000 workers — including the 55% of Teamsters-represented who work part-time — walk out? How low do those $14 billion in adjusted profits go, then?
How will real estate funds earn returns and build wealth when real estate is no longer insurable, leaving millions in debt and without roofs over their heads?
How will we survive another pandemic without a half million new community health workers, better and more accessible primary care, or another half million new nurses?
We won’t, and the time to protect workers — especially the most vulnerable and essential among us — is now.
As always, we have to get to walk and chew gum at the same time.
To protect farmworkers today and stop new emissions because — even if they do get time in the shade, or god forbid, in air conditioning, or have more room to sleep — what happens when the power goes out, or the grid fails?
What happens if we don’t build 75,000 miles of new transmission for all of this glorious new solar and wind?
We’re all fucked is what happens.
It’s chef’s kiss perfect that our most essential workers are also our most vulnerable, but it just doesn’t have to be that way.
So let’s all spend our time doing everything we can to protect them and build a more inclusive and resilient food system along the way.