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Since starting this blog, I have made room in my life to start thinking a lot about the local/sustainable food movement, primarily the localness of it and how it effects (or doesn’t) systemic change. Then, on a drive home from my daughter’s school, my mind drifted to the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen,” the lists the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out each year (the most recent was published yesterday) documenting the foods that have the most pesticide residues and which have the least. This is a list put out for consumers. Shoppers who want to avoid the “dirtiest” foods can reference the list and opt to buy organic if their budgets allow. The list is widely distributed among green/sustainable living circles and written in major media publications. I use it myself.

But here’s the thing, the list is for consumers and says nothing about how the pesticides on these crops affect the workers in the fields (applying them and/or harvesting the fruit and vegetables). So, I can choose the best for my family, but is this the best choice for the men and women in the field who help to bring this “cleaner” food to my table? I wanted to know, so I did a little research.

I found this Mother Jones’ article that was published in June of 2011, right after the EWG put out last year’s list. I think it does a very good job of explaining the issue. The article states that while consumers are at risk for pesticide exposure from foods they consume, farmers, farm workers, and farm communities are at much higher risk. This makes sense, as their exposure would happen over and over as crops are dusted and during the harvest. A journalist at Mother Jones cross-referenced the EWG’s list with the USDA’s list of pesticides applied per acre for each crop. They found there is little difference between the two lists in the amount of pesticide applied per acre. Some of the items on the “Clean Fifteen” were actually the dirtiest in terms of per acre application of pesticide. And spinach, one of the “Dirty Dozen” is actually low on the list of per acre application of pesticide. Now, I know this is not the most scientific of studies, but I think it is important because very few people seem to be talking about farm workers. What if someone published a list based on farm worker exposure? How would that affect our choices?

While the EWG’s lists are helpful for consumers, they cannot be used as a tool for change, not when some of the produce listed as “clean” are actually among the “dirtiest” in the field and for farm workers. I want a movement that places farm workers’ voices along side consumer voices. Farm workers are an extremely vulnerable and “invisible” sector of our society. Current immigration law and sentiment in the United States makes this more so. In many respects, the sustainable food movement is hyper local. Until we combine that with a bigger movement that focuses also on direct systemic change, we leave out one of the most important stake holders: farm workers.

Farm Worker Justice Resources:

National Farm Worker Ministry 

Coalition for Immokalee Workers

Rosalinda Guillen – Good article in a leader of the movement (also a list of additional resources)

Pesticide Action Network

Great Article on Sustainable Food Movement:

“Eating Our Way to a Better World? A Plea to Local, Fair Trade, and Organic Food Enthusiasts