The face of farm work, the very real impact of pesticides and the killer strawberry connection

The lead from Barry Estabrook's article "Life Engulfed by Pesticides" in The Atlantic:
Leaning on her cane, Linda Lee matter-of-factly listed her medical conditions: diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, emphysema, and arthritis. She had her hip replaced and her gall bladder removed. Her kidneys failed, so she had a transplant. She also had two corneal implants. Asked what caused her woes, the 57-year-old resident of Apopka, Florida, doesn't hesitate: for nearly a decade as a farm laborer on the shores of Lake Apopka in the 1970s and 1980s, she was routinely exposed to agricultural chemicals.
I understand - pesticides get the job done. Along with the other "-cides," they eliminate pesky weeds, insects and other invasive factors. But countless studies, books and primary accounts from farm laborers like Ms. Lee show the limitations and long-term health and environmental implications of  chemical applications. What I don't understand is the disconnect and lack of response by food companies and government regulatory agencies. Well, sure, an easy understanding would be the deep-rooted link between agribusinesses and politicians, but the glaring oversight of facts is sickening. We have entire dead zones in our bodies of water caused by the run-off from synthetic or petroleum-based agricultural sprays (seen way before the horrendous oil spill), which have wiped out entire plant and animal species, not to mention destroyed small fisheries. People have developed diseases inextricably linked to pesticide, insecticide and fungicide applications and still live at or below the poverty line, obviously without access to healthcare or other viable employment options. I realize it's an age-old cliche about the heartlessness of companies and corporations, but it's baffling how industrial and conventional agriculture puts profit before human and environmental health. How can you plan for a working, successful business model if you (1) kill off your workers (even if you consider them expendable) and (2) exploit the land beyond its capacity. We're stuck in a system that doesn't work and it's maddening, especially when we know the solutions.

One of my favorite pesticide stories as of late has to be the use of the highly toxic (a carcinogen to be exact) fumigant methyl iodide on strawberry crops in California. Just listen to this report on NPR:


From the story:
When the Environmental Protection Agency approved methyl iodide as a pesticide under the Bush administration in 2007, it was a controversial decision at the time. But California — which is the country's biggest user of the chemical — has its own review process.

In April, the state issued a notice to approve methyl iodide with an exposure limit of 96 parts per billion for workers.
"I was shocked," says Ed Loechler, a biology professor at Boston University.
Loechler served on the independent review panel that was brought in by state regulators to help staff scientists evaluate methyl iodide.
"The number in the notice is 120 times higher than the level that both the independent scientific review panel thought was safe, as well as their own internal experts thought would be safe, in terms of worker exposure," Loechler says.


According to an assessment produced by the panel and staff scientists, the safe exposure level for workers is 0.8 parts per billion. Anything over that, they said, would be unsafe.
"I honestly think that this chemical will cause disease and illness," says Froines, who chaired the panel. "And so does everyone else on the committee."
Hmm. Seems like a no brainer: Stop using methyl iodide. What, if any, is the point when people are placed before productivity or profit? When it simply impacts the bottom line? Leave the hippy-dippy treehugger argument out of it and look deeper - how much longer will it be economically viable to use synethic toxins on food?

If you've learned nothing else from my ranting, think twice before buying generic strawberries from California and, oh yeah, have a heart.