Essential Farmworkers Deserve Pesticide Protections
COVID-19 is having disproportionate impacts on our nation's two million farmworkers, who as essential workers continue to toil in the fields despite numerous deadly outbreaks and no federal COVID-related workplace protections.
COVID-19 has pulled back the veil on the strikingly poor workplace conditions of these essential workers, built by decades of insufficient farmworker health and safety policy, poor immigration policy, and limited health care access. As a consequence, at least 86,900 food workers have tested positive for COVID-19 – but with uneven data collection, exacerbated by businesses' lack of transparency over workplace outbreaks and workers' avoidance of testing due to fear of losing income, the figures we have are likely an underestimate.
A new analysis does note that each additional percentage point of farmworkers per overall population in a county was associated with 5.79 more deaths from COVID-19 – but did not contribute to more deaths per 100,000 residents. The researchers concluded, "farmworkers may face unique risks of COVID-19 beyond issues of language, insurance, or economics."
The Biden Administration must issue a federal standard to protect workers from COVID-19 that includes farmworkers. But beyond COVID-specific actions for farmworkers, the Biden Administration also needs to urgently address the underlying health and workplace conditions that pre-dated COVID.
A Dangerous Regulatory Rollback
One key way the Biden Administration can start to correct the course is by enforcing and safeguarding the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), the main federal regulation that protects workers from pesticide exposure. Pesticide exposure weakens the respiratory, immune, and nervous systems — exacerbating farmworkers' COVID-19 risks.
Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump Administration made various efforts to weaken or eliminate key provisions of the WPS, which had been revised and improved at the end of the Obama Administration. The WPS is an outlier in occupational health standards – because pesticides, although they are a workplace hazard, are regulated by the EPA, instead of by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which covers occupational health in every other industry. This is just one example of how farmworkers are exempted from basic protections afforded to other workers.
Many of the Trump Administration's efforts to weaken the WPS were thwarted by advocacy and litigation by environmental and farmworker groups. However, one of the Trump Administration's proposed rollbacks of the WPS remains: the gutting of the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ), which required pesticide handlers to stop applying pesticides if someone is near the area being sprayed. If the final Trump AEZ rule goes into effect, farmworkers in neighboring fields, children in school playgrounds or in their backyards, and rural residents going about their day may be in close proximity to where pesticides are being sprayed, as long as they're not on the same property, without any requirement that the applicator suspend spraying. More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides, designed to kill insects, weeds, and other pests, are applied to U.S. agricultural fields every year. In addition to acute poisonings, pesticides are also associated with long-term health harms including various cancers, developmental and reproductive harm, and neurological damage, for both farmworkers and community members who are chronically exposed to pesticides.
In December 2020, Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, acting on behalf of a coalition of groups including Migrant Clinicians Network, sued the EPA to stop these changes. An injunction is currently in place preventing the changes from being implemented as the case proceeds – but the Biden Administration has a responsibility to protect these workers, rather than rely on courts. And the issue of pesticide drift on nearby properties is just one of the many challenges that farmworkers face when it comes to pesticide exposure.
An Opportunity to Right Wrongs
Pesticide spray in Utah. Pesticide exposure is associated with various cancers, developmental and reproductive harm, and neurological damage. Aqua Mechanical / Flickr
These hard-working farmworkers, upon whom we all depend for the food we eat, deserve immediate and effective protections. The new Administration has a unique opportunity to take advantage of renewed public understanding of the exploitation of farmworkers, to provide long-overdue workplace protections to keep essential workers safe, and to transform our food systems to ensure healthy workplaces, neighborhoods, and the environment, by:
- Rejecting the Trump Administration's attempt to weaken the Application Exclusion Zone requirements;
- Increasing the monitoring and enforcement of the WPS, including, but not limited to, provisions such as the minimum age of 18 for applying pesticides, adequate training for workers in a language that they understand, and worker access to information about pesticides being applied;
- Requiring drift protections on pesticide labels for drift-prone pesticides, to better protect workers, bystanders, and communities;
- Requiring that all pesticide label instructions be written in Spanish and/or other languages spoken by workers so they have the information they need to protect themselves and their families;
- Banning highly toxic pesticides such as chlorpyrifos;
- Using accurate scientific methods for determining pesticide risk, including taking into account farmworkers' potential long-term exposure, when making determinations about pesticide safety and the registration of pesticide products;
- Including farmworkers and farmworker-serving organizations as key stakeholders at EPA, with a focus on environmental justice.
These are just some of the essential steps the new administration can take to protect farmworkers from the extreme hazards of their workplaces. Much more needs to be done about the myriad factors that negatively impact farmworker health, like poverty, immigration status, language barriers, and fear of retaliation.
COVID-19 has shown that a strong public health system and a functional food system require basic health and human rights for all of our neighbors, especially those typically left out. The Biden Administration has a duty and an opportunity to improve our systems – and consequently improve our nation's health and well-being.
Amy K. Liebman is Director of Environmental and Occupational Health for Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit focused on creating practical solutions at the intersection of vulnerability, migration, and health.
Iris Figueroa is the Director of Economic and Environmental Justice for Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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