SALINAS – As an organizer with the United Farm Workers, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing farm workers routinely be excluded or absent from the public discourse happening around issues of food justice. So it came as no surprise when I picked up my voter guide to read the arguments in favor of Proposition 37 and saw that it was boiled down to one issue – my right to know what I put in my body. Fair enough. That sentence alone is enough for me to support the measure. But I’m inclined to go a little further and ask: What would Prop. 37 mean for those who pick our food?
If voters approve Proposition 37, all foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) will need to be labeled as such for consumers. Most of the foods that fall into that category are those grown with GMO seeds that have been modified in some way or form to withstand less-than-ideal conditions, such as cold climates (strawberries), heavy exposure to pesticides (apples), or bruising that takes place during harvest and packing (tomatoes).
A possibility exists that even if all genetically modified foods are clearly labeled, it won’t do much to change the pattern of who buys organic, and who doesn’t. Prop. 37 won’t change the fact that grocery stores in low-income communities generally do not carry many organic products because they’re considered a luxury item – something most families can’t afford.
But this can change. If heightened awareness by labeling leads to an increase in demand for organic products, there should be a decrease in the price of those organic products. As a result, healthy food could become more accessible to the farm worker community and the low-income community as a whole.
Less obvious, but perhaps more important for farm workers, is the fact that a decrease in GMO food production would also mean less pesticide use.
A few months ago, I was involved in a movement to ban Methyl Iodide, a cancer-causing fumigant, from being used in our foods. Through that work I met Dana Pearls, a well-respected community organizer from Pesticide Watch. She explained how GMO crops generally have more pesticides applied to them than non-GMO crops, because they are genetically more resistant to the toxins.
“Prop 37 benefits farm workers as people who come in direct contact with crops and who live next to the GMO fields,” said Pearls. “It is better for a farm worker to not work in a field of GMO crops if they have the choice. Those fields will use far more pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer than non-GMO crops. Less exposure to toxics is healthier…people in agricultural communities are already subjected to contaminants in the air and drinking water, and are not told what chemicals they are being impacted by.”
When you live in a large agricultural community such as Salinas or Coachella, you have to take extra heed of such warnings since constant exposure to pesticides leads to a number of diseases. This is especially true in companies where unions do not exist and pesticides are applied while farm workers are at work or in adjacent fields where the wind can carry the pesticides to them. Both practices are actually illegal, but the law is neither followed nor enforced.
“Supporting GMO labeling is especially powerful for the Central Coast,” said Pearls. “It sends a message to the pesticide companies that people do not trust the toxic pesticides, and that people are demanding that their health be prioritized over the profit of the large companies.”
If consumer rejection of GMO foods causes demand for healthy and organically grown food to go up, then it stands to reason that more growers will make the choice of purchasing non-GMO seeds for next year’s crop. And that means less exposure to pesticides for farm workers and their families.
This business relationship between growers and seed producers is what makes Proposition 37 so threatening to large GMO seed producers. Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds is the largest opponent to Proposition 37. Monsanto has given $7,100,500 to oppose Proposition 37, according to a California Secretary of the State report issued in October. DuPont, another producer of genetically modified seeds, comes in second with $4,900,000 followed along with some familiar brands such as PepsiCo ($1,716,300), Nestle ($1,169,400) and Coca-Cola ($1,164,400).
And when you have a state like California – the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities – the stakes are high for those corporations. Corporations like Monsanto know that Proposition 37 will influence the foods we, as consumers, purchase and that will have an influence on the seeds that growers will purchase.
“Farmers are not afraid of the labeling,” said Pearls. “The pesticide industry is. They are the ones that hold patents on GE [Genetically Engineered] seeds and are the ones opposing the proposition. Farmers want labeling because it helps them understand what consumers want. They are smart, and want to deliver what the market wants.”
Thinking about Proposition 37 as something that will benefit the consumer is a good way of viewing it. It’s enough to win my vote, anyway. But if passed, it could also start a ripple effect that will benefit the long-term health of farm workers. And by thinking about Proposition 37 in this way, we can begin to reframe the food justice movement as a movement inclusive of farm workers, and vice versa.
Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix is a reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. His blog, “The Diary of Joaquín Magón” can be read at Coachella Unincorporated, a community media outlet serving the eastern Coachella Valley.
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