The first time I remember really noticing a Very Important White Lady in Media dismiss the issue of agricultural chemicals as unimportant was back in 2013. The subtitle of the article in question was: “There’s no compelling evidence to support the idea that organic food is less harmful or more nutritious than everything else in the supermarket. So why spend the extra money?” When pressed to back up that claim on a journalist list-serv (again 2013), the author cited information about the impact of chemicals on consumers and that she remained unconvinced there were any health benefits to buying organic.
I’ve seen this narrative around again a lot recently, framing the issue as a Whole Foods mom thing, and I’ve had the same reaction now as then: Do people just not know farmworkers exist?
It’s particularly confusing when people who purport to be progressive or socialist buy into the idea that the problem of agrichemicals is only to be considered at the grocery store. To sum up some of the peer-reviewed data: Pregnant people exposed to pesticides have a higher chance of miscarrying; exposure to organophosphates (chemicals found in pesticides) in utero is linked to birth defects, lower IQ, and neurodevelopmental issues including ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and behavioral disorders; children who are chronically exposed to organophosphates during infancy and early childhood are found to have decreased lung function later in childhood and into adolescence.
Acute exposure to pesticides and herbicides can lead to poisoning and death. A peer-reviewed study published in the journal BMC Public Health in 2020 found that, every year, a whopping 44% of farmers and farmworkers globally are poisoned by pesticides—meaning an exposure acute enough to cause immediate symptoms like nausea, headache, and, in extreme cases, death. That’s approximately 385 million cases with 11,000 fatalities globally every year.
The evidence is compelling, shocking, and peer-reviewed. Much of it has been around for decades. It’s even led to some major legislative and judicial shifts, such as the $10 billion settlement Monsanto was ordered to pay to plaintiffs in a class action suit last year over its cancer-causing herbicide, Roundup. So, why are so many educated media elites still in the dark about the impacts of chemicals on agricultural communities? In a nutshell: racism, media navel-gazing, and industry propaganda.
“When you look at who are the people who are most at risk of [agrichemical] exposure, it’s farmworkers. Farmworkers are mostly Black and Brown people, and the racism is rampant,” said Margaret Reeves, senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network. “And that goes way back into all sorts of federal policy too: the fact that farmworkers are excluded from many of the worker protections that other workers enjoy, for example. The National Labor Relations Act and several others back to the ’30s or so explicitly exclude farm workers who have largely been African American and Latin[e].”
“There’s this impact from the Trump era of a lot of media people wanting to seem populist and then populist being coded as Velveeta cheese and processed foods and not caring about organic.”
Nearly half the residents of California’s Central Valley, a primary agricultural region for both the state and the country, are Latine, and Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network has seen environmental racism play into both media coverage and policymaking around chemical use in Central Valley farm fields. She recalled an experiment the United Farmworkers did several years ago in response to accusations from some anti-immigrant groups that Mexicans were “stealing jobs” from American workers.
“They posted listings for farm jobs all over the place, and to my knowledge, there were no white people applying for those jobs,” she said. “Because who wants to be working 10 hours a day in the 100-plus-degree summers we have here in the Central Valley, touching chemicals and breathing chemicals?”
Latine journalists from farming communities in America’s newsrooms are few and far between, and that certainly contributes to the gap in coverage. But there are other issues at play here, too.
“There’s this impact from the Trump era of a lot of media people wanting to seem populist and then populist being coded as Velveeta cheese and processed foods and not caring about organic,” said Anna Lappé, a best-selling author and food justice advocate.
Popular food writer Alicia Kennedy said she’s seen this trend, too. “It’s been horrible to watch food writers do this in order to seem ‘relatable,’” she tweeted in response to one of my tweets on this subject in September. When I emailed to ask her more about that, she replied, “The thing I’d say that happens in food media is simply pretending nothing is happening in this regard—origin is essentially ignored, completely, and food is treated as neutral except in regards to social justice issues at restaurants or in recipes.” She did add that there are, of course, notable outliers, including Civil Eats, Foodprint, and The Counter.
This topic comes up around meat and dairy, too, where there seems to be an endless back and forth in food, health, and women’s magazines about whether these products are “good for you.” Occasionally, one will wonder whether they’re good for the environment. Almost no one includes the lives (and illnesses and deaths) of factory farm and meatpacking workers when considering where these products ought to fit in our diets.
“It’s really hard to crack because the industry has been pushing the idea for so long that concerns about industrialized food production are elitist,” Lappé said.
It’s a very familiar story to anyone who’s worked on climate. “There are so many parallels between helping people understand how the fossil fuel industry has worked to create narratives around climate change and how the food industry has worked to craft narratives around chemicals,” Lappé said. “Community organizers and environmental advocates are arguing for pretty common-sense policy: We want clean water, clean air. These are basic things we all need to live. The only way industry can keep winning is to marginalize these common-sense policies as partisan—if you care about these things then you’re a Democrat, maybe even a socialist. And you’re white, rich, and elite.”
She also pointed out that some of the same public relations firms that worked for oil companies have worked with food and chemical companies. Hill & Knowlton, for example, worked for Monsanto, the American Petroleum Institute, and several tobacco companies all at the same time. Edelman, which works for Shell, ExxonMobil, and various other oil and gas companies, tried to burnish Monsanto’s image back in 2008 and was brought in to manage the fallout from the company’s cancer litigation in 2019.
The same strategy that pushed the idea that if you want to act on climate, you don’t care about poor people and access to cheap energy is now pushing the idea that if you have public health concerns about agrichemicals, you are an elitist who doesn’t care about starving people in Africa. “It’s a powerful way to shut down public debate,” Lappé said.
And, unfortunately, as with climate, the messaging often works. It’s not just the media that leaves Black and Brown people out when discussing these issues; the environmental movement has a long history of it, too. So, when chemical or oil companies tell communities of color that the environmental movement doesn’t care about them, it’s easy to believe.
Fortunately, the story is being reclaimed by grassroots organizers in frontline communities. Martinez’s group in California’s Central Valley, for example, makes sure local workers know about their rights when it comes to pesticide safety and has been working alongside multiple other organizations to pass regulations around the use of chemical pesticides. That work led to the California state ban of chlorpyrifos in California in 2019, which went national in August. Organizers in Hawaii were the first to successfully ban the chemical in their state back in 2018.
So, policy is catching up—albeit slowly. Now, we just need the mainstream media to pull their heads out of their Whole Foods carts and see the neurotoxins for the trees.