What is the worth of a man or a woman? What is the worth of a farm
worker? How do you measure the value of a life?
Ask the parents of Johnnie Rodriguez.
Johnnie Rodriguez was not even a man; Johnnie was a five year old
boy when he died after a painful two year battle against cancer.
His parents, Juan and Elia, are farm workers. Like all grape workers,
they are exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.
Elia worked in the table grapes around Delano, California until
she was eight months pregnant with Johnnie.
Juan and Elia cannot say for certain if pesticides caused their
son's cancer. But neuroblastoma is one of the cancers found in McFarland,
a small farm town only a few miles from Delano, where the Rodriguezes
"Pesticides are always in the fields and around the towns," Johnnie's
father told us. "The children get the chemicals when they play outside,
drink the water or when they hug you after you come home from working
in fields that are sprayed.
"Once your son has cancer, it's pretty hard to take," Juan Rodriguez
says. "You hope it's a mistake, you pray. He was a real nice boy.
He took it strong and lived as long as he could."
I keep a picture of Johnnie Rodriguez. He is sitting on his bed,
hugging his Teddy bears. His sad eyes and cherubic face stare out
at you. The photo was taken four days before he died.
Johnnie Rodriguez was one of 13 McFarland children diagnosed with
cancer in recent years; and one of six who have died from the disease.
With only 6,000 residents, the rate of cancer in McFarland is 400
percent above normal.
In McFarland and in Fowler childhood cancer cases are being reported
in excess of expected rates. In Delano and other farming towns,
questions are also being raised.
The chief source of carcinogens in these communities are pesticides
from the vineyards and fields that encircle them. Health experts
believe the high rate of cancer in McFarland is from pesticides
and nitrate-containing fertilizers leaching into the water system
from surrounding fields.
Last year California's Republican Governor, George Deukmejian,
killed a modest study to find out why so many children are dying
of cancer in McFarland. "Fiscal integrity" was the reason he gave
for his veto of the $125,000 program, which could have helped 84
other rural communities
with drinking water problems.
Last year, as support for our cause grew, Governor Deukmejian used
a statewide radio broadcast to attack the grape boycott.
There is no evidence to prove that pesticides on grapes and other
produce endanger farm workers or consumers, Deukmejian claimed.
Ask the family of Felipe Franco.
Felipe is a bright seven year old who is learning to read and write.
Like other children, Felipe will some day need to be independent.
But Felipe is not like other children: he was born without arms
Felipe's mother, Ramona, worked in the grapes near Delano until
she was in her eighth month of pregnancy. She was exposed to Captan,
known to cause birth defects and one of the pesticides our grape
boycott seeks to ban.
"Every morning when I began working I could smell and see pesticides
on the grape leaves," Ramona said.
Like many farm workers, she was assured by growers and their foremen
how the pesticides that surrounded her were safe, that they were
harmless "medicine" for the plants.
Only after Ramona took her son to specialists in Los Angeles was
she told that the pesticides she was exposed to in the vineyards
caused Felipe's deformity. The deep sadness she feels has subsided,
but not the anger.
Felipe feels neither anger nor sadness. He is lavished with the
care and love he will always need. And he dreams of what only a
child can hope for: Felipe wants to grow arms and legs. "He believes
he will have his limbs someday," his mother says. "His great dream
is to be able to
move around, to walk, to take care of himself."
Our critics sometimes ask, 'why should the United Farm Workers
worry about pesticides when farm workers have so many other more
The wealth and plenty of California agribusiness are built atop
the suffering of generations of California farm workers. Farm labor
history across America is one shameful tale after another of hardship
Malnutrition among migrant children. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and
respiratory infections. Average life expectancy more than twenty
years below the U.S. norm.
Savage living conditions. Miserable wages and working conditions.
Sexual harassment of women workers. Widespread child labor. Inferior
schools or no school at all.
When farm workers organize against these injustices they are met
with brutality and coercion-and death.
Under Governor Deukmejian's control, California's pioneering 1975
law which guarantees farm workers the right to organize and vote
in secret ballot union elections is now just one more tool growers
use to oppress our people.
Thousands who thought the law protected them were threatened and
fired and beaten by the growers; two were murdered-shot to death
by gunmen their employers had hired.
For 100 years succeeding waves of immigrants have sweated and sacrificed
to make this industry rich. And for their sweat and for their sacrifice,
farm workers have been repaid with humiliation and contempt.
With all these problems, why, then, do we dwell so on the perils
Because there is something even more important to farm workers
than the benefits unionization brings.
Because there is something more important to the farm workers'
union than winning better wages and working conditions.
That is protecting farm workers-and consumers-from systematic poisoning
through the reckless use of agricultural toxics.
There is nothing we care more about than the lives and safety of
There is nothing we share more deeply in common with the consumers
of North America than the safety of the food all of us reply upon.
We are proud to be a part of the House of Labor.
Collective bargaining is the traditional way American workers have
escaped poverty and improved their standard of living. It is the
way farm workers will also empower themselves.
But the U.F.W. has always had to be something more than a union.
Because our people are so poor. Because the color of our skin is
dark. Because we often don't speak the language. Because the discrimination,
the racism and the social dilemmas we confront transcend mere economic
What good does it do to achieve the blessings of collective bargaining
and make economic progress for people when their health is destroyed
in the process?
If we ignored pesticide poisoning-if we looked on as farm workers
and their children are stricken-then all the other injustices our
people face would be compounded by an even more deadly tyranny.
But ignore that final injustice is what our opponents would have
'Don't worry,' the growers say.
'The U.F.W. misleads the public about dangers pesticides pose to
farm workers,' the Table Grape Commission says. 'Governor Deukmejian's
pesticide safety system protects workers,' the Farm Bureau proclaims.
Ask the family of Juan Chabolla.
Juan Chabolla collapsed after working in a field sprayed only an
hour before with Monitor, a deadly pesticide.
But instead of rushing Juan to a nearby hospital, the grower drove
him 45 miles across the U.S.-Mexico border and left him in a Tijuana
clinic. He was dead on arrival.
Juan, 32, left his wife and four young children in their impoverished
clapboard shack in Maneadero, Mexico.
Just after Juan Chabolla died, Governor Deukmejian vetoed a modest
bill, strongly opposed by agribusiness, that would have required
growers to post warning signs in fields where dangerous pesticides
One billion pounds of pesticides are applied each year in the United
States-79 percent of them in agriculture; 250 million pounds go
on crops in California; in 1986, 10 million pounds went on grapes.
And that 10 million pounds on grapes only covers restricted use
pesticides, where permits are required and use is reported. Many
other potentially dangerous chemicals are used that don't have to
Grapes is the largest fruit crop in California. It receives more
restricted use pesticides than any fresh food crop.
About one-third of grape pesticides are known carcinogens-like
the chemicals that may have afflicted Johnnie Rodriguez; others
are teratogens-birth defect-producing pesticides-that doctors think
deformed Felipe Franco.
Pesticides cause acute poisoning-of the kind that killed Juan Chabolla-and
chronic, long-term effects such as we're seeing in communities like
More than half of all acute pesticide-related illnesses reported
in California involve grape production.
In 1987 and '88, entire crews of grape workers-hundreds of people-were
poisoned after entering vineyards containing toxic residues.
In all those episodes, the grapes had been sprayed weeks before.
All the legal requirements were followed. The vineyards were thought
to be "safe."
But farm workers were still poisoned.
Illegal use of pesticides is also commonplace.
Grape growers have been illegally using Fixx, a growth enhancer,
for 20 years. Another illegal pesticide, Acephate, which causes
tumors, has also been used on grapes.
Over 2,000 consumers were poisoned in 1984 after eating watermelons
illegally sprayed with Aldicarb.
And these are only cases where growers were caught applying illegal
Farm workers and their families are exposed to pesticides from
the crops they work. The soil the crops are grown in. Drift from
sprays applied to adjoining fields-and often to the very field where
they are working.
The fields that surround their homes are heavily and repeatedly
sprayed. Pesticides pollute irrigation water and groundwater.
Children are still a big part of the labor force. Or they are taken
to the fields by their parents because there is no child care.
Pregnant women labor in the fields to help support their families.
Toxic exposure begins at a very young age-often in the womb.
What does acute pesticide poisoning produce?
Eye and respiratory irritations. Skin rashes. Systemic poisoning.
What are the chronic effects of pesticide poisoning on people,
including farm workers and their children, according to scientific
Birth defects. Sterility. Still births. Miscarriages. Neurological
and neuropsychological effects. Effects on child growth and development.
Use of pesticides are governed by strict laws, agribusiness says.
Growers argue reported poisonings involved only one (1) percent
of California farm workers in 1986.
But experts estimate that only one (1) percent of California pesticide
illness or injury is reported. The underreporting of pesticide poisoning
is flagrant and it is epidemic.
A World Resources Institute study says 300,000 farm workers are
poisoned each year by pesticides in the United States.
Even the state Department of Food and Agriculture reported total
pesticide poisoning of farm workers rose by 41 percent in 1987.
Yet the Farm Workers aren't sincere when we raise the pesticide
issue, grape growers complain.
They won't admit that the first ban on DDT, Aldrin and Dieldrin
in the United States was not by the Environmental Protection Agency
in 1972, but in a United Farm Workers contract with a grape grower
Who will protect farm workers from poisoning if it isn't the farm
The Environmental Protection Agency won't do it.
They're in bed with the same agricultural and chemical interests
they are supposed to regulate.
It was an accident of history that E.P.A. got stuck with regulating
pesticides. It happened after the federal Occupational Safety and
Health Administration-which is supposed to safeguard all American
working people-refused to protect farm workers.
The law won't do it.
Agribusiness lobbied mightily to exclude farm workers from federal
job safety and health laws. And they won.
You think the National Rifle Association wields a powerful lobby?
They're pussy cats compared to organizations that lobby for agribusiness
when it comes to protecting their interests.
Too many people still think of small family farmers-an image corporate
agribusiness likes to promote. The American Medical Association
tries to do the same thing; except most people don't believe doctors
still make house calls. But we all know what farming is today in
California: a $14 billion a year industry dominated by huge corporations-the
state's richest industry.
There has never been a law at the state or national levels that
has ever been enforced for farm workers and against growers: child
labor, minimum wage and hour, occupational health and safety, agricultural
Now will agribusiness protect farm workers from pesticides?
The agrichemical industry won't do it.
It's out to maximize profits. Using smaller amounts of safer chemicals
more wisely is not in the interest of chemical companies and agribusiness
groups like the Farm Bureau that have heavy financial stakes in
maintaining pesticide use.
There is nothing is wrong with pesticides, they claim; the blame
rests with abuse and misuse of pesticides.
It's like the N.R.A. saying, 'guns don't kill people, people kill
Universities won't do it.
America's colleges and universities are the best research facilities
in the world. But farm workers are of the wrong color; they don't
speak the right language; and they're poor.
The University of California, and other land grant colleges spend
millions of dollars developing agricultural mechanization and farm
chemicals. Although we're all affected in the end, researchers won't
deal with the inherent toxicity or chronic effects of their creations.
Protecting farm workers and consumers is not their concern.
Doctors won't do it.
Most physicians farm workers see won't even admit their patients'
problems are caused by pesticides. They usually blame symptoms on
skin rashes and heat stroke.
Doctors don't know much about pesticides; the signs and symptoms
of acute pesticide poisoning are similar to other illnesses.
Doctors who work for growers or physicians with close ties to rural
communities won't take a stand.
Two years ago in Tulare County, California 120 orange grove workers
at LaBue ranch suffered the largest skin poisoning every reported.
The grower had changed the formulation of a pesticide, Omite CR,
to make it stick to the leaves better. It did.
It also stuck better to the workers. Later they discovered the
reentry delay had to be extended from seven to 42 days.
After the poisoning, the company doctor said workers should just
change clothes and return to work. When we demanded the workers
be removed from exposure, the doctor replied, "Do you know how much
that would cost?"
Workers endure skin irritations and rashes that none of us would
tolerate. They continue to work because they desperately need the
money. They don't complain out of fear of losing their jobs.
Farm workers aren't told when pesticides are used. They have no
health insurance. They are cheated out of workers compensation benefits
by disappearing labor contractors or foremen who intimidate people
into not filing claims.
In the old days, miners would carry birds with them to warn against
poison gas. Hopefully, the birds would die before the miners.
Farm workers are society's canaries.
Farm workers-and their children-demonstrate the effects of pesticide
poisoning before anyone else.
But the unrestrained use of agricultural chemicals is like playing
Russian Roulette with the health of both farm workers and consumers.
So much of so many pesticides are used and so little is known about
There are 600 active ingredient pesticides used in agriculture;
they to into thousands of pesticide products.
Of the 600 farm pesticides, 496 can leave residues on or in food.
Only 316 of the 496 pesticides that leave residues on food have
maximum legal tolerance levels set by the E.P.A. saying how much
of these pesticides can be in what we eat.
Of the 316 pesticides with tolerance levels, only 41 percent can
be detected by the most common and widely used tests.
Two hundred and ninety-three (293) pesticides that could leave
residues on food cannot be detected by any current test that checks
for more than one chemical at a time. Many can't be detected by
any test at all.
Forty-four (44) percent of the pesticides used on grapes that pose
potential health hazards to humans can't be detected by tests used
to check for toxic residues.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that
pesticides in 15 commonly eaten foods, including grapes, pose the
greatest pesticide-caused dietary cancer risk to people.
Many pesticides used on food-that have government tolerance levels-can
cause cancer in human beings.
Almost all tolerance levels of pesticides in food were set by the
federal government without adequate testing for potential harmful
health effects on consumers.
Some safety studies on these pesticides were conducted by an Illinois
laboratory that was closed after it was found to be reporting fraudulent
data to the E.P.A. Two of its toxicologists are in jail.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that it will take
E.P.A. until well into the 21st century to ensure all pesticides
now on the market meet current health and safety standards.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration takes an average of 18 days
to test food for pesticide residues. Before test results are available,
the food has been marketed and consumed.
Most pesticides were approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
in the 1940s and '50s. Little or no testing for chronic health effects
Not long ago the Delaney Amendment, passed by Congress, banned
any food additive known to cause cancer in animals or humans. That
ban applies to everything-except farm pesticides.
The agrichemical industry convinced Congress that pesticides which
cause cancer are not really food additives since they are added
to food before it is harvested.
In 1978, E.P.A. allowed new chemicals to be registered conditionally
without complete testing for chronic health effects. Testing on
half of all new pesticides registered between 1978 and 1984 did
not meet current health and safety testing standards.
All this means that we do not know if pesticide residues on the
food you buy in supermarkets cause cancer, birth defects, and other
And E.P.A.-charged with protecting America's land and people from
toxic contamination-has made no effort to encourage the use of safer
alternatives to toxic pesticides.
The chemical companies have convinced the growers-and they want
you to believe-that if it wasn't for them, the whole world would
be dead of malaria and starvation.
But, brothers and sisters, pesticides haven't worked.
Crop loss to pests is as great or greater than it was 40 years
ago. The pesticides haven't changed anything.
Because Darwinian evolution has favored pests of all kinds with
this enormous ability to resist and survive.
It's why antibiotics stop working after awhile. If you don't kill
everything, the organisms that survive are tougher and more resistant;
and they're the ones that breed.
There are mosquitos in parts of the world that can survive any
combination of pesticides delivered in any dose. There is a startling
resurgence of malaria around the world. And it's much worse now
because 40 years ago we relied entirely on a chemical solution.
So we ignored alternatives: draining ponds, dredging ditches, observing
sound crop practices, encouraging use of natural predators.
In the long run, more lives will be lost because for 30 years we
also stopped developing malaria vaccines.
You can't fool Mother Nature. Insects can outfox anything we throw
at them. In time, they will overcome.
People thought pesticides were the cure-all-the key to an abundance
of food. They thought pesticides were the solution; but they were
The problem is this mammoth agribusiness system. The problem are
the huge farms. The problem is the pressure on the land from developers.
The problem is not allowing the land to lay fallow and recover.
The problem is the abandonment of cultural practices that have stood
of centuries: crop rotation, diversification of crops.
The problem is monoculture-growing acres and acres of the same
crop; disrupting the natural order of things; letting insects feast
on acres and acres of a harem of delight . . . and using pesticides
that kill off their natural predators.
Meantime, these greedy chemical companies, multi-national corporations,
try to sanctify their poisons. They would have us believe they are
the health givers-that because of them people are not dying of malaria
When all the time, they just want to defend their investments.
They just want to protect their profits. They don't want anything
The chemical companies believe in the Domino Theory: if any chemical
is attacked then all chemicals are threatened. No matter how dangerous
It's a lot like that saying from the Vietnam War: we had to destroy
the village in order to save it.
They have to poison us in order to save us.
But at what cost?
The lives of farm workers and their children who are suffering?
The lives of consumers who could reap the harvest of pesticides
ten, twenty years from now? The contamination of our ground water.
The loss of our reverence for the soil. The raping of the land.
We see these insane practices reflected in the buy-outs and takeovers
on Wall Street. It's the same thing: exchanging long term security
for short-term gain.
You sacrifice a company for the immediate rewards. But you destroy
what produces jobs and livelihoods and economic health.
If you eat the seed corn, you won't have a crop to plant.
Oscar Wilde once said, "A cynic is someone who knows the price
of everything and the value of nothing."
We look at the price, but we don't look at the value. Economics
and profit drive everything.
People forget that the soil is our sustenance. It is a sacred trust.
It is what has worked for us for centuries.
It is what we pass on to future generations.
If we continue in this thoughtless submission to pesticides-if
we ruin the top soil-then there will not be an abundance of food
to bequeath our children.
Farm workers and consumers cannot get pesticide regulation because
those who make the laws and set the rules are captives of these
bankrupt 40- and 50-year old policies that have been shown not to
E.P.A.'s pesticide standards are not health standards created to
rotect the American public.
With health standards, a company cannot complain to the government
that it will go out of business or that its business will be hurt
of it is forced to comply with the standards.
Because protecting public health is considered more important than
protecting the profits of any corporation.
But E.P.A.'s standards are based on something very different: cost
If growers or chemical companies can show that standards protecting
eople will cost more than they will benefit, they can get off the
Under cost benefit standards, the costs of pesticide safety are
quantifiable: like the money chemical companies invest in producing
pesticides or in the stock of toxics that have already been manufactured;
like the crops growers claim could be endangered if some pesticides
The benefits of pesticide protection-especially long term chronic
threats to farm workers and consumers-are impossible to express
in dollars and cents. They are often contained, at best, in vague
and incomplete toxicological studies-thanks to growers and chemical
companies that have
resisted testing for health effects.
So they don't ban the worst of these poisons because some farm
worker might give birth to a deformed child.
So they don't imperil millions of dollars in profits today because,
some day, some consumer might get cancer.
So they allow all of us, who place our faith in the safety of the
ood supply, to consume grapes and other produce which contain residues
from pesticides that cause cancer and birth defects.
So we accept decades of environmental damage these poisons have
brought upon the land.
The growers, the chemical companies and the bureaucrats say these
are acceptable levels of exposure.
Acceptable to whom?
Acceptable to Johnnie Rodriguez's parents? Acceptable to Felipe
Franco? Acceptable to the widow of Juan Chabolla and her children?
Acceptable to all the other farm workers-and their sons and daughters-who
have known tragedy from pesticides?
There is no acceptable level of exposure to any chemical that causes
cancer. There can be no toleration of any toxic that causes miscarriages,
still births, and deformed babies.
Risk is associated with any level of exposure. And any level of
exposure is too much.
Isn't that the standard of protection you would ask for your family
and your children? Isn't that the standard of protection you would
demand for yourself?
Then why do we allow farm workers to carry the burden of pesticides
on their shoulders?
Do we carry in our hearts the sufferings of farm workers and their
Do we feel deeply enough the pain of those who must work in the
fields every day with these poisons? Or the anguish of the families
that have lost loved ones to cancer? Or the heartache of the parents
who fear for the lives of their children? Who are raising children
with deformities? Who agonize the outcome of their pregnancies?
Who ask in fear, 'where will this deadly plague strike next?'
Do we feel their pain deeply enough?
I didn't. And I was ashamed.
I studied this wanton abuse of nature. I read the literature, heard
from the experts about what pesticides do to our land and our food.
I talked with farm workers, listened to their families, and shared
their anguish and their fears. I spoke out against the cycle of
But sometimes words come too cheaply. And their meaning is lost
in the clutter that so often fills our lives.
That is why, in July and August of last year, I embarked on a 36-day
unconditional, water-only fast.
The fast was first and foremost directed at myself. It was something
I felt compelled to do to purify my own body, mind and soul.
The fast was an act of penance for our own members who, out of
ignorance or need, cooperate with those who grow and sell food treated
The fast was also for those who know what is right and just. It
pains me that we continue to shop without protest at stores that
offer grapes; that we eat in restaurants that display them; that
we are too patient and understanding with those who serve them to
The fast, then, was for those who know that they could or should
do more-for those who, by not acting, become bystanders in the poisoning
of our food and the people who produce it.
The fast was, finally, a declaration of noncooperation with supermarkets
that promote, sell, and profit from California table grapes. hey
are as culpable as those who manufacture the poisons and those who
It is my hope that our friends everywhere will resist in many nonviolent
ways the presence of grapes in the stores where they shop.
The misery that pesticides bring farm workers-and the dangers they
pose to all consumers-will not be ended with more hearings or studies.
The solution is not to be had from those in power because it is
they who have allowed this deadly crisis to grow.
The times we face truly call for all of us to do more to stop this
evil in our midst.
The answer lies with you and me. It is with all men and women who
share the suffering and yearn with us for a better world.
Our cause goes on in hundreds of distant places. It multiplies
among thousands and then millions of caring people who heed through
a multitude of simple deeds the commandment set out in the book
of the Prophet Micah, in the Old Testament: "What does the Lord
require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk
humbly with your God."
Thank you. And boycott grapes.
* The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation is the intellectual
property owner of Cesar's name, voice, image, and likeness, speeches
and writings. Permission to reproduce said intellectual property
for publication purposes may be obtained by contacting the: Cesar
E. Chavez Foundation,634 South Spring Street Suite 400, Los Angeles,
CA 90014, T: (213) 362-0260 Fax (213) 362-0265, E: firstname.lastname@example.org