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Agrochemicals’ Harm on Social Justice

The history of pesticide manufacturing and use in the United States reveals an enduring legacy of environmental racism against communities of color and their collective action for environmental justice. Humans have harnessed the toxicity of chemicals to kill agricultural insects for millennia. However, the rapid proliferation of conventional synthetic agrochemicals increased how much agriculture itself could hurt places and people. The burden of protecting people and places has always fallen on communities rather than governments and institutions.

History of Agrochemicals and Social Justice

Insecticides and fertilizers gained new popularity as labor-saving technologies after the abolition of slavery in 1862. Without enslaved Black field hands to pluck insects from crops and clear new lands, cotton planters invested in agrochemicals to kill insects and revitalize the land. However, agrochemicals did not simply replace Black labor, they also placed the burden of harm on Black laborers who had to use them with little to no educational support.

On the West Coast, the formation of California’s vast agricultural infrastructure also relied on environmental racism and modern agrochemicals. White settlers weaponized ideas about efficiency and proper land use to seize lands from dozens of Indigenous communities, and passed legislation (such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, among others) preventing farmers of color from participating in the agricultural boom as landowners.

New technologies did not replace migrant laborers but encouraged investment in modern, capital-intensive agriculture that further discredited their traditional knowledge and access to land. The overlapping nature of technology and labor continued to make pesticides an occupational hazard for farmers of color.

Environmental Racism and Agrochemicals

Environmental racism intersects with sites of agrochemicals production in urban areas and use in rural areas. Agrochemical production shaped urban industrial centers in urban waterfront communities like the South Bronx and South Baltimore. In South Baltimore, in particular, the history of agrochemical production in Curtis Bay is one factor that resulted in that community having some of the nation’s highest asthma rates in the country. Even though Curtis Bay is no longer a principal producer of agrochemicals, a wide range of chemical manufacturers continue to plague the health of residents.

Agrochemicals production also left a similar stain on the strip of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, known as Cancer Alley. Due to pollution from nearly 30 chemical manufacturers, cancer rates for the historically Black communities in this industrial corridor are 50 times higher than the national average.

Agrochemical Racism in Agricultural Production

Agrochemicals also have a direct impact on poor health outcomes in sites of agricultural production. This is especially true in California, where nearly one-third of the nation’s farmworkers live. Combined with a legacy of racial segregation, California is also a site of environmental racism. Over half of California pesticides are used in five majorities Latinx and low-income counties. This parallels the patterns in the U.S. South, where the government spends nearly eight times more money on pesticides in counties with populations over 40% people of color than in counties with less than 6%.

In the case of California, counties with Latinx majority populations use 906% more pesticides than counties with fewer than 24% Latinx residents. A high percentage of residents encounter pesticides in the fields, and entire communities experience effects of pesticide drift and pesticide runoff, which contaminate the air and water shared by communities and cropland. School children are especially vulnerable where planners nestled schools between fields. Latinx students are 91% more likely to attend schools with the highest exposure to agrochemicals.

Studies of the impact of prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides on low-income Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers are numerous, complex, and troubling. They generally highlight how unequal protection from pesticides causes several respiratory, stress-related, and developmental illnesses. Despite California’s regulatory system for pesticides and record environmental protection, pesticide-related illnesses continue to harm farm-working communities due to environmental racism.

Environmental Justice and Agrochemicals

In response to the unequal burden of harm environmental racism placed on communities of color, those communities nurtured environmental-justice movements to advocate for themselves. Environmental justice consists of social-justice oriented and life-affirming environmental practices, and it intersects with agrochemicals in many ways. The recent federal ban of chlorpyrifos, led by the Latinx farmworker community, is a case in point: with strategic legal and scientific support, farmworker community organizers made the federal ban possible.

According to Margaret Reeves and Ángel García, who organized with California farmworkers, communities used their own lived experience and expertise to investigate the environmental injustices they face. In many cases, administrative districting formally excludes communities of color from land-use decisions, and decision-making bodies ignored communities with a perceived lack of scientific credentials. Decades of farmworker experiences, ideas, and efforts generated the local, state, and national momentum necessary to ban the pesticide.
Alternative Agriculture

An environmental justice lens helps us think critically about food systems, even organic farming. For example, organic farming protects biodiversity and soil quality and reduces pollution from fertilizers and pesticide run-off. Since the 1980s, organic farming has advocated for an agriculture free of synthetic agrochemicals as an alternative to conventional agriculture. Organic farmers are also required to use such non-chemical techniques as crop rotation, selecting resistant varieties, using nutrient and water management, providing habitat for the natural enemies of pests, and releasing beneficial organisms such as ladybugs to protect crops from damage.

If all these pest prevention strategies have failed and pests are present, organic farmers may use limited amounts of pesticides, but those chemicals are five times less likely to leave behind harmful residues. However, since organic farming has become more popular and profitable, farmers will have to center on social justice and increase compensation, transparency, and safety standards for their workers.

Black Farmer Justice

Thinking critically about Black-owned farms is another way the organic farming community can address environmental racism through environmental justice. The institution of slavery first took African people from their Indigenous lands and subjected them to lives of hard and unpaid agricultural labor.

According to Leah Penniman, the owner of food-justice certified Soul Fire Farm, the legacy of slavery still stains many Black people’s ideas and relationship with agriculture. Rather than see growing foods as liberating, they can think of slavery and oppression. Anti-Black racism also robbed Black people of positive experiences with the land after slavery. The history of Black agriculture since the Civil War is a history of violent displacement and fearful migration.

In 1920, before the millions of Black people fled southern violence in the Great Migration, over 14% of U.S. farmland was Black-owned. By 1992, Black farmers owned less than 1% of U.S. farmland. Even with the increased attention to Black-owned farms, historical Black-owned farms continue to face racism and injustice today. Lastly, supporting Black-owned land helps center a wide range of Black environmental knowledge and activism. Similar to how

Latinx farmworkers and activists have influenced chlorpyrifos policies, Black ecological knowledge and activism have shaped environmental justice movements in the United States.
Even though agrochemicals are the engine of industrial agriculture, which adversely impacts the environment and communities of color, many of those same communities fight back. Science and technology alone will not reduce inequalities in our food system. Organic agriculture cannot improve how food is grown and distributed by itself either. The future, however, is far from bleak.

Jayson Porter, is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern University and Social Justice Intern at The Organic Center.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.