Who knew that a plant-based ‘milk’ alternative has been in existence for over 4,400 years? ….It takes how long to cultivate a Christmas tree? ….Do you know where your flower bouquets come from?
Believe it or not, the arbitrary thoughts and peripheral details about our world can offer a sense of clarity. In this case, the miscellany of agriculture and the helping hands that power these overlooked industries demonstrate how inexorably linked we are with the farmworker community. This appreciation for details defines our ‘big picture’ awareness and underscores the potential for opportunity.
Behold the dairy section, a designation which is still in contention among leading industry manufacturers but which supplies consumers with a wealth of dairy and non-dairy options. USDA figures indicate that consumption of ‘fluid milk’* has been steadily declining from an average 247 pounds per person annually in 1975 to 146 pounds in 2018. Plant-based ‘milk’ and dairy substitutes have flooded shelves in recent years. Generally, the selection of alternatives falls into one of these base categories: cereal, legume, vegetable, seed, and nut. Farmworkers throughout the United States are integral in the cultivation, storage, and processing of these highly profitable goods. Growers go to great lengths to fortify these valuable commodities, and recent legislation tends to favor grower wellbeing over the welfare of agricultural workers. Powerful herbicides, including atrazine, dicamba, and acifluorfen are used to control the growth of invasive plant species. Atrazine was approved for commercial use by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, the same year it was banned by the European Union, citing “ubiquitous and unpreventable water contamination.” Among other things, it is a known endocrine disruptor with effects on reproduction and development. When applied, atrazine can pollute rural soil, dirt, air, and water supplies.
For consumers, the holiday season commences once the Thanksgiving food-induced coma has worn off and isn’t complete without a Christmas tree adorned with colorful trinkets and festive lights. For producers, 73 million new trees will be planted this year, and seven to ten years on average can lapse from the seedling stage to market-ready trees. Nursery management, according to Pennsylvania State University, involves planting, fertilizing, shearing, harvesting, handling heavy (often outdated) equipment, and applying herbicides and pesticides. Also, it’s important to note that the trees are harvested in the winter, which puts farmworkers at risk of cold stress. (See our blog from the archives: “Heat Stress…What About Cold Stress?”)
According to Pinestead Tree Farms of Minnesota, “Christmas trees are considered to be one of the most labor-intensive of all farm crops,” and, given how crucial migrant workers are to agriculture, it is critical to address hazards and promote vigilance on tree farms.
Gone are the days when bouquets at the supermarket or on street corners come from a local greenhouse or wildflower field somewhere nearby. Over the past few decades, imports & exports have shifted so that the U.S. now cultivates approximately 10% of its flowers while importing the rest. The Smithsonian Magazine estimates that 70% of those imported flowers originate in greenhouses in places like Ecuador and Colombia.
Work in a greenhouse, whether here or abroad, presents many of the same hazards as farmwork in an open field: heat stress, pesticide exposure, and muscular pulls and strains from having to make the same repetitive movements over and over again. Temperatures inside a greenhouse are not regulated and the space is not well-ventilated, leading to conditions that are ripe both for a heat-related illness and pesticide inhalation. In fact, the U.S. does not screen imported flowers for pesticide residues at all, even while it does inspect them for pests, incentivizing international growers to apply more chemicals to their flowers, not less. This puts their greenhouse workers at higher risk for exposure to pesticide residues, with one survey finding that workers had been exposed to 127 different chemicals altogether. According to a survey by Colombia’s National Institute of Health (NIH), and as reported by the Smithsonian, “pregnant Colombian flower workers exposed to pesticides might have higher rates of miscarriages, premature births and babies with congenital defects” – which is exactly what has been observed in U.S. farmworkers as well.
Whatever it is – be it Valentine’s Day roses, the parking lot full of holiday trees, or the dairy section at the grocery store – you can be sure that farmworkers are behind the scenes, making it happen. There are nearly 3 million of them, after all, and, as has been underscored by the current pandemic, we cannot live life without them. But we also can’t require them to work without attending to their health and safety, in every situation and every respect. That’s why AFOP Health & Safety advocates for them in multiple spaces and provides them with life-saving educational tools through a broad network of trainers all across the country. Farmworkers are essential, but they are NOT expendable and should never be treated that way.
* Fluid milk includes the product weight of beverage milks: whole, reduced fat, low fat, skim, flavored, buttermilk, eggnog, and miscellaneous.