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Berry Farmers Break Free From Big Agriculture

Food
Modesto Hernandez Leal, a worker-owner at Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, gives a tour of the blueberry field. Edgar Franks / Community to Community

By Lynsi Burton

For the first time, Ramon Torres maintains control over his livelihood. He chooses what to farm and how to farm it, free from pesticides that harm workers, under working conditions he helps set.


The 22 acres of juicy strawberries and blueberries he farms belong to him and three others under Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad ("Land and Liberty Cooperative"), a farm co-op founded in 2013 to meet consumer demand for berries farmed under nonexploitative conditions and worker demand for a fair paycheck and safe working conditions. The co-op prides itself on organic farming and livable wages for its workers.

When Torres worked at Sakuma Brothers berry farms in Skagit County, Washington, several years ago, he and his fellow farmworkers endured low wages, unpaid breaks, and exposure to pesticides.

A co-worker, Federico Lopez, was fired immediately after requesting a raise, and, along the way, the workers learned they weren't paid for rest breaks.

A strike organized by Familias Unidas por la Justicia—and a federal class-action lawsuitresolved in 2015—afforded them more benefits, including the paid rest breaks, and propelled Sakuma Brothers workers to secure a union contract in 2016 that improved their working conditions and led to farmworkers getting paid a minimum of $12 per hour.

In April, a Washington state Supreme Court decision determined that piece workers—workers paid by how much produce they harvest—must be paid at an equal rate for any work that doesn't involve direct piece work, such as downtime and travel between fields.

"All the bad things about housing, treatment of workers—everything changed," Torres said through an interpreter.

But in the lead-up to the court-ordered changes, Torres and several other workers were starting to think about other solutions. They asked themselves: What if we set the standard for our own working conditions and own the land we work?

Torres and three others—with the support of food sovereignty and worker solidarity nonprofit Community to Community—formed a cooperative in which members own and live on the land they farm and will, if all goes according to plan, making enough income selling their crops at markets. They worked amid the long hours and demands from family, work, and life.

This summer is the first harvest season for Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad. The co-op now owns and farms berry fields in the rural towns of Sedro-Woolley and Lynden. They're now producing 150 to 200 boxes each week to sell in markets throughout the region and have laid the groundwork to establish a community-supported agriculture subscription service next year.

And it's all organic, which is a primary tenet of the co-op's mission.

Inspiration

Torres and the three other workers—Pedro Torres, Modesto Hernandez Leal, and Tomas Ramon—began organizing the co-op as part of Ramon Torres's efforts with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, where he was organizing workers to make demands of Sakuma Brothers.

They did so with the support of C2C, which trained the workers using a culturally relevant curriculum in how to form a cooperative. While the four worker-owners farm the land and make all decisions, C2C pitches in with administrative work, marketing, and other tasks the owners need support with as the cooperative gets going.

The co-op members all worked at corporate farms before and are doing their own farming for the first time, said Rosalinda Guillén, executive director at C2C. She is also a farmworker organizer who grew up on a Skagit County berry farm. They're training as they're doing the work, she said.

Torres was forced to change course after the Sakuma Brothers strike; while he helped get his coworker reinstated, he was fired.

So, using the lessons he learned from his union activism, he sought to gain greater control of his livelihood.

He and the Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad members agreed on their founding principles.

"When we came together, we decided what we wanted: working with organics, no pesticides, good wages, and the most important thing was not to have a boss ordering [me] around or telling me what to do," Torres said.

Ramon Torres, worker-owner at Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad, began the co-op with three other members to set the standards for their work conditions, and to own and live on the land they farm.David Bacon

Farmworkers often encounter abusive situations, ranging from wage theft to eviction to injury and illness, Guillén said. They're typically left powerless because employers can retaliate against complaints by firing workers, she added.

State agencies exercise control over working conditions and pesticide use—and C2C participates in rulemaking processes—but within the parameters of these overarching laws, the co-op sets additional rules about how it raises its crops and treats its workers.

The workers of the co-op have had to overcome barriers.

"The time and intellectual power to change from capitalism to cooperativism requires a lot of energy and time," Guillén said.

All four co-op founders are currently working other jobs—in corporate agriculture—to support themselves as they get Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad off the ground.

Guillén said their aim isn't riches, but a preservation of their heritage as they secure their rights.

"They don't want their kids to leave agriculture. They want their children to grow food the right way," she said. "It's more about leaving a legacy and changing the system than making tons of money."

Organic

Among the most effective efforts of the Trump administration is the dismantling of environmental regulations. Last year, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed a ban on chlorpyrifos, an insecticide known to harm children's brains and the nervous system. Just more than a month later, 50 farmworkers in Bakersfield, California, were poisoned by chlorpyrifos. Only a month later, 17 workers planting celery starts in the Salinas area fell ill after nine different pesticides were applied to area fields.

A federal court ordered the EPA ban chlorpyrifos in August, two years after EPA scientists found that the chemical affected the air quality in the largely agricultural California towns of Salinas, Ripon and Shafter.

Guillén said if the worker-owners want to see a post-pesticide world, they must put it into action.

"It's more valuable for us to form a model and example of how farmworkers can grow food without pesticides," Guillén said. "If we don't grow organic ourselves, we can't argue our point."

Farmworkers are the first to be affected by pesticides, and the physical protection they might wear, like gloves, doesn't always help. They still can't remove every trace of pesticides from their bodies, Guillén said.

"Why do we have to go out in the fields looking like robots?" she said, referring to the protective equipment workers wear in the fields. "We just don't want this stuff in the field. It is better that robots do it because it's killing us."

And then there's the damage to the soil, air, water supply, and the pesticides that remain on food.

Torres sees symptoms of pesticide irritation among farmworkers: swollen eyes and faces and, once, white spots on a worker's hands.

"As farmworkers, pesticides are harming us," Torres said. "We don't have the option of saying, 'Do or don't apply pesticides.' We just go to work. We have to work at the mercy of whatever company is there."

And to Torres, farming organic isn't a way of growing that belongs to White, wealthy people—it's traditional, and a practice passed down through generations.

"We're all used to growing our food without the need of pesticides or chemicals," he said of their ancestral heritage. "We want to follow that tradition to not use pesticides."

Vision

Torres has fielded compliments on the Cooperativa's produce and sees the product posted on social media, where the union and its workers are tagged. They're set to buy 60 more acres in Lynden in the coming weeks.

The co-op's 10-year vision includes 100 acres, 10 houses, meeting areas, and spaces where the farmworkers can practice their native art, Torres said. Most of the workers are indigenous, often Mixteco or Trique.

Pedro Torres, a worker-owner, holding up boxes of blueberries farmed at Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad. The farm co-op produces 150 to 200 boxes each week to sell in markets throughout the region. Edgar Franks / Community to Community

They'd also like to foster additional co-ops that will grow other crops, including testing different varieties of corn. If all goes as planned, the corn co-op would sell to a co-op tortilleria—building a "local, solidarity economy," Guillén said.

Meanwhile, the co-op employs eight workers separate from the worker-owners and pays them $15 an hour. Guillén said the four worker-owners will start making money on their enterprise in about three years.

Torres continues to work other jobs to support his two kids until the union can provide full-time income. His wife also works as a union member.

"Right now I try to take advantage of harvest so I can make a little money," he said. "It's a lot of work, it's not easy, but we're moving slowly and advancing."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

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Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.