Farm Workers Left Out of Prop.37 Discussion, But Have a Stake

Posted: Nov 05, 2012

SALINAS – As an organizer with the United Farm Workers, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing farm workers routinely be excluded or absent from the public discourse happening around issues of food justice. So it came as no surprise when I picked up my voter guide to read the arguments in favor of Proposition 37 and saw that it was boiled down to one issue – my right to know what I put in my body. Fair enough. That sentence alone is enough for me to support the measure. But I’m inclined to go a little further and ask: What would Prop. 37 mean for those who pick our food?

If voters approve Proposition 37, all foods made with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) will need to be labeled as such for consumers. Most of the foods that fall into that category are those grown with GMO seeds that have been modified in some way or form to withstand less-than-ideal conditions, such as cold climates (strawberries), heavy exposure to pesticides (apples), or bruising that takes place during harvest and packing (tomatoes).

A possibility exists that even if all genetically modified foods are clearly labeled, it won’t do much to change the pattern of who buys organic, and who doesn’t. Prop. 37 won’t change the fact that grocery stores in low-income communities generally do not carry many organic products because they’re considered a luxury item – something most families can’t afford.

But this can change. If heightened awareness by labeling leads to an increase in demand for organic products, there should be a decrease in the price of those organic products. As a result, healthy food could become more accessible to the farm worker community and the low-income community as a whole,

Less obvious, but perhaps more important for farm workers, is the fact that a decrease in GMO food production would also mean less pesticide use.

A few months ago, I was involved in a movement to ban Methyl Iodide, a cancer-causing fumigant, from being used in our foods. Through that work I met Dana Pearls, a well-respected community organizer from Pesticide Action Network. She explained how GMO crops generally have more pesticides applied to them than non-GMO crops, because they are genetically more resistant to the toxins.

“Prop 37 benefits farm workers as people who come in direct contact with crops and who live next to the GMO fields,” said Pearls. “It is better for a farm worker to not work in a field of GMO crops if they have the choice. Those fields will use far more pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer than non-GMO crops. Less exposure to toxics is healthier…people in agricultural communities are already subjected to contaminants in the air and drinking water, and are not told what chemicals they are being impacted by.”

When you live in a large agricultural community such as Salinas or Coachella, you have to take extra heed of such warnings since constant exposure to pesticides leads to a number of diseases. This is especially true in companies where unions do not exist and pesticides are applied while farm workers are at work or in adjacent fields where the wind can carry the pesticides to them. Both practices are actually illegal, but the law is neither followed nor enforced.

“Supporting GMO labeling is especially powerful for the Central Coast,” said Pearls. “It sends a message to the pesticide companies that people do not trust the toxic pesticides, and that people are demanding that their health be prioritized over the profit of the large companies.”

If consumer rejection of GMO foods causes demand for healthy and organically grown food to go up, then it stands to reason that more growers will make the choice of purchasing non-GMO seeds for next year’s crop. And that means less exposure to pesticides for farm workers and their families.

This business relationship between growers and seed producers is what makes Proposition 37 so threatening to large GMO seed producers. Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds is the largest opponent to Proposition 37. Monsanto has given $7,100,500 to oppose Proposition 37, according to a California Secretary of the State report issued in October. DuPont, another producer of genetically modified seeds, comes in second with $4,900,000 followed along with some familiar brands such as PepsiCo ($1,716,300), Nestle ($1,169,400) and Coca-Cola ($1,164,400).

And when you have a state like California – the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities – the stakes are high for those corporations. Corporations like Monsanto know that Proposition 37 will influence the foods we, as consumers, purchase and that will have an influence on the seeds that growers will purchase.

“Farmers are not afraid of the labeling,” said Pearls. “The pesticide industry is. They are the ones that hold patents on GE [Genetically Engineered] seeds and are the ones opposing the proposition. Farmers want labeling because it helps them understand what consumers want. They are smart, and want to deliver what the market wants.”

Thinking about Proposition 37 as something that will benefit the consumer is a good way of viewing it. It’s enough to win my vote, anyway. But if passed, it could also start a ripple effect that will benefit the long-term health of farm workers. And by thinking about Proposition 37 in this way, we can begin to reframe the food justice movement as a movement inclusive of farm workers, and vice versa.

Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix is a reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. His blog, “The Diary of Joaquín Magón” can be read at Coachella Unincorporated, a community media outlet serving the eastern Coachella Valley.

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User Comments

Niu/Dong on Nov 06, 2012 at 12:04:04 said:

Can Dana Pearls show the data that GMO crop used more pesticides than non-GMO?

Doob on Nov 06, 2012 at 11:55:08 said:

For detailed, non-partisan, analysis of prop 37 including links to source materials check out It has the most thorough analysis I've found. The rest of their prop analysis is very good as well:

Louise Cayard on Nov 05, 2012 at 22:54:26 said:

Dear Jess E. Valenzuela Flix, I have been thinking about the health and welfare of farm workers ever since I became aware of the dangers of GMO's and the increased requirement of pesticides.

just last year there was a full 20% increase in pesticide use. Even though the initative is a simple label, I am hopeful it will create a tipping point with consumers to avoid GMO products and the increased pesticides which will certainly benefit the farmers and farm workers as well as us consumers.

I would encourage everyone to research what is happening to our food. It is criminal what companies like Monsanto are unknowingly doing to us.

I just became aware of GMO's only 6 months ago and have become a volunteer with and have been working for over 4 months now full-time to try to help educate the public. PAN (Pesticide Action Network) is a wonderful organization and their website has tons of valuable information as well as the Institute for Responsible Technology.

They have been lying to us and hiding the truth from us for over 16 years. Tuesday, November 6, 2012 is our opportunity to stand up for our right to choose safe food! Vote Yes on Prop. 37!

Keep up the good work JEVF!

1forthetruth on Nov 05, 2012 at 06:48:20 said:

Bob Vu;
I agree that organic prices won't instantly drop, however your other points are ignoring what Prop 37 is.

Prop 37 is not banning GMOs, it's doing exactly what you are advocating, it is giving the average person enough information to make a choice, to buy GMOs or not, it is therefore by "the effort of each individual" that this world will be rid of GMOs, if that is to happen at all.

The state of California estimates it will cost up to 1 million a year to enforce Prop 37, with California's current population that would increase taxes by $0.0265 (2.65 cents per individual), so I would say the tax increase would be negligible, even if you have a family of six, the tax increase would amount to 16 cents per year, this won't financially burden anyone.

There is no "rehabilitation phase" required to switch from GMO to non-GMO crops, I have worked on dairies that grow there own corn, some of these dairies switched from GMO to non-GMO corn (their cattle didn't like the corn and production went down), all they had to do was buy non-GMO corn, it was an instant switch. If you want to grow organic produce, it does take a few years to transition from GMO, there is a few year waiting period before you can be a certified organic farm.

BTW most medicines contain GMOs, FYI.

I hope this was helpful.

Thank you.

Scott Smith on Nov 05, 2012 at 06:32:33 said:

The statement that GMOs are modified, more or less, to withstand less-than-ideal growing conditions is inaccurate. In fact, more than 90% of the patent claims associated with genetically modified organisms focuses exclusively on the invention's ability to withstand being poisoned or to deliver poison in the form of insecticide engineered into every cell of the plant-invention. Yes, plants and seeds are now, and have been, patented inventions and owned by the likes of Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer and Syngenta...all chemical manufacturing companies that now fancy themselves as agricultural biotech.

GMOs are about selling pesticides and turning farmers into the equivalent of cable TV customers, requiring them to purchase services on an annuity basis and creating all the dependencies to keep them paying. It used to be that farmers cultivated their own seed strains and saved seeds from their harvest for the next season's planting. No more.

Fred Mohr on Nov 05, 2012 at 05:27:59 said:

@ Bob Vu......

The reason why 80% of the market is GMO is because it was introduced into our food supply without our knowledge and if you talk to people they have no clue what GMO is or what the dangers are. Each individual as you say, either know about GMO or they dont. I for one as an individual ate GMO for 10 years before I was clued in. How did I become clued in? Because of a Non-GMO label that led me to ask questions.
Stop with the doom and gloom scenario about bankruptcy and starvation. Lets get on the right track here and stop with non sense. Label it!

Bob Vu on Nov 05, 2012 at 04:02:56 said:

Things aren't so cut and dry as they seem. I fear of a crisis emerging from Prop 37 before things can get better, if things do get better. That is one of the flaws of relying on government intervention.

First of all, an increase in demand of organic products will not instantly decrease prices. Basic economics shows us that the supply would have to increase, significantly, if there is a sudden spike in demand, before prices can drop lower and remain consistently low. If the power is given to the government, taxes will rise, and in addition to higher initial food costs, it will be difficult for poorer families to stay afloat.

Secondly, for farmers whose plantations currently have GMOs, a long, rehabilitation phase will be required to change to non-GMO products, and even longer if they want to produce organic products. During this time, they risk bankruptcy, and millions will face starvation.

I am not an advocator of the abomination known as GMOs. Over 80% of foods in the US is GMOs, and that remaining 20% would not be enough to feed everyone. If we are to rid this world of GMOs, it would have to be on the effort of each individual, not the government, to slowly correct the problem. This problem stemmed from people putting more faith into medicines that could make them feel better, rather than relying on the foods that make them feel great.




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