Farmworkers at Risk During the Pandemic

This edition of Green Gazette includes updates on farmworker strikes, electric highways, and more.

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by Adobe Stock/JackF
Many of the 2.4 million U.S. farmworkers are vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Farmworkers are deemed “essential” during a pandemic, but that designation is at odds with the limited protection and pay they receive for providing the nation’s food supply. These workers, numbering 2.4 million in the United States, are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, and in many cases lack the guidelines and supplies they need to stay safe, all while living and working in crowded conditions. Further, many of the workers are undocumented, so they may not feel safe reporting hazardous conditions. So, starting in spring, the virus spread unchecked through numerous agricultural hubs across the country.

According to the Environmental Working Group, as of mid-July, only eight states have mandatory protections in place for farmworkers, including personal protective equipment, distancing requirements, disinfection, testing, and housing and transportation adjustments. Other states have issued recommendations for these types of protections to stop the spread, but many don’t have any guidance or laws in place to prevent outbreaks and protect workers on the frontlines.

In some places, farmworkers have gone on strike to protest the lack of protections, demanding safer conditions and higher pay. In Yakima County, Washington, hundreds of farmworkers went on strike in May, demanding protective supplies and higher pay. Their collective action prompted a wave of protests throughout the region, with workers walking off their jobs, rallying outside the state capitol, and filing complaints to the Department of Labor and Industries. Workers at an Allan Brothers apple-packing shed formed a committee, Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia (Workers United for Justice), which was ultimately recognized by the company as representative of all the workers, and succeeded in pressuring Allan Brothers to adopt additional safeguards and offer temporary hazard pay. Washington state also released new regulations that companies must follow to keep their workers safe.

But production at agricultural companies hasn’t slowed, and many farmworkers are still at risk. Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has been monitoring the presence and spread of COVID-19 at meatpacking plants, food processing facilities, and farms. FERN’s graphs tracking COVID-19 outbreaks and cases are updated every weekday. Learn more here.

Protested Pipelines Paused

Several U.S. pipeline projects were blocked or stopped back-to-back this summer. The construction and expansion of all of these pipelines have faced Indigenous-led, people-powered criticism and resistance for years because of the danger they pose to human and ecological health.

First, in early July, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy canceled construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would’ve stretched through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, across the Appalachian Trail. The companies cited legal uncertainty and rising costs as factors behind their decision. That uncertainty partially stems from ongoing litigation brought against large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure.

pipeline construction site with flattened dirt and black plastic sheet on the side

A day after this decision, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which runs from North Dakota to southern Illinois and carries oil below both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, to be emptied because of insufficient environmental assessments. The plaintiffs in the case included the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which have resisted DAPL since 2016, including through several high-profile demonstrations that were met with military equipment. However, the court-ordered shutdown was later challenged in an appeals court, which issued a temporary stay on the decision, allowing the pipeline to keep flowing oil as of mid-August and drawing out the years-long fight.

Also in early July, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to maintain a lower-court ruling that blocked a key permit for the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline, prohibiting construction across waterways and delaying the project. KXL runs from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Texas, and its construction has also been met with widespread criticism because of its intrusion through critical water supplies and wetland ecosystems, such as the Nebraska Sandhills.

And in late July, Zurich Insurance, the biggest insurer of the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMX), announced that it would not renew its insurance policy after expiration. Pipelines require insurance to legally transport oil, so the removal of a major insurer’s financial backing has big implications for a pipeline’s success.

Roundup Lawsuits Settled

In 2018, pharmaceutical company Bayer acquired agrochemical giant Monsanto, and with it, a legacy of litigation related to its herbicide Roundup, the most widely applied weedkiller in the U.S.

The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, which multiple plaintiffs have claimed caused their cancer. Monsanto denied any connection between its herbicide and ill health, but continued to face numerous lawsuits, particularly after a 2015 International Agency for Research on Cancer report classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Bayer announced in June that it would settle tens of thousands of Roundup lawsuits by paying $8.8 to $9.6 billion in settlements to address current litigation, and $1.25 billion to cover future claims. This will bring closure to about 75 percent of the disputes against Roundup, though Bayer will still face claims from plaintiffs who won’t accept the settlement. Bayer maintains that glyphosate is safe, and that these settlements are not attached to any admission of liability in these cancer cases.

nozzle spraying herbicide on green plants

Electrified Highway

Interstate 5, the primary north-south highway on the West Coast, will soon be more equipped to provide power to electrified vehicles. Nine West Coast electric utilities, two agencies, and numerous sponsors collaborated to commission a study to support these efforts, titled the “West Coast Clean Transit Corridor Initiative,” which has proposed a roadmap for electrifying 1,300 miles of I-5 for freight haulers and delivery trucks.

The initiative recommends the installation of 27 charging sites in 50-mile intervals along the length of the highway. Through 2025, these sites will serve mostly medium-duty trucks, and will later phase into serving heavy-duty trucks. Simultaneously, 41 supplementary charging sites will be added to arterial highways that branch off of I-5.

The report also recommends the expansion of programs that provide funding for electrification to accelerate the adoption of electric transportation and infrastructure. Plus, according to the Initiative, electrification has significant implications for climate and health. Transportation makes up the bulk of these West Coast states’ air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and people who live near the I-5 corridor experience higher rates of negative health impacts because of their proximity to the busy road. To learn more, go here.

a highway with streaks of light from car headlights and taillights in front of the seattle washington skyline

Racial Equity Toolkit

The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) has compiled a resource on racial equity, the “Young Farmers Racial Equity Toolkit,” that’s meant to help farmers and organizers — particularly those who are white — recognize, reckon with, and dismantle the oppression embedded in every aspect of society, including agriculture.

Rather than serving as a one-size-fits-all resource, NYFC says the toolkit serves as a starting place for people who aren’t sure where to begin, given the pervasiveness of racialized oppression. The toolkit contains three sections — the first section covers background information, the second provides tools on convening conversations and anti-racism trainings, and the third gives guidance on organizing direct actions, to “outline how accountability and action must coincide with self-education and individual transformation.” The toolkit also provides suggested readings, resources, and sample study group agendas.

NYFC invites critique of the document’s content, and says it plans to revise the resource as needed.

FarmLink Fights Food Waste

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, food supply chains faltered amid business closures, labor shortages, and other interruptions, leading to increased food waste — even as food banks nationwide faced deficits due to increased need.

Seeing the disconnect between these impacts, students from multiple universities and colleges teamed up to reroute fresh produce that would otherwise be wasted. Their project, FarmLink, collects food from farmers and redistributes it to food banks.

The group began small and rapidly grew in scale to deliver hundreds of thousands of pounds per week of surplus food across the country. FarmLink has delivered more than 6 million meals since its inception, and it says its efforts have also increased economic security for the people who are growing and hauling this food, and prevented carbon dioxide emissions by lowering the amount of food waste festering in landfills.

Common Chemicals Linked to Celiac Disease

Young people with elevated blood levels of common chemicals could be at higher risk for celiac disease, an immune disorder that causes gut reactions to gluten, according to new research. The toxic chemicals linked to the disease are in pesticides; nonstick cookware; and fire retardants that coat clothing, furniture, and electronics.

Researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine studied this connection and published their findings in the journal Environmental Research in May 2020. The study found that young people with high blood levels of pesticides and pesticide-related chemicals were twice as likely to be diagnosed with celiac disease than their peers without elevated blood levels of these chemicals. The study also found that a person’s sex plays a role in which toxins impact risk.

Previous research has focused on genetics as a primary driver of celiac disease, which can only be managed through a gluten-free diet. While researchers say further study is needed to solidify the correlation, these results demonstrate a tentative connection between autoimmune disorders and environmental factors. Learn more about these findings here.