Pesticide Drift and the Politics of Scale in California's Central Valley

Toxic chemicals are sweeping across our nation's most important agricultural region and officials are using time-tested tactics not to find solutions, but to make the problem seem small and localized.
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Part of California's Central Valley as seen from the air. (Photo: Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

Part of California's Central Valley as seen from the air. (Photo: Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

California’s Central Valley is the breadbasket of America. It is the source of much of the country’s grapes, tree fruit, nuts, and vegetables. Many of the farms are massive, requiring large amounts of capital, land, and labor.

In the nearby small towns are the homes of the state’s farm laborers. They are primarily Latino. About half are undocumented. Most are poor and few have health care. Politically and economically weak, they are the primary human victims of pesticide drift.

Pesticide drift occurs when chemicals leave the fields for which they’re intended and travel to where humans can be exposed. According to data summarized by geographer Jill Harrison for her paper on the subject, California is a pesticide-intensive state. It accounts for two to three percent of all cropland in the U.S., but uses 25 percent of the pesticides. One in 10 registered pesticides are prone to drift and a third include chemicals that are “highly acutely toxic” or cause cancer, reproductive or developmental disorders, or brain damage. Officially, there are an average of 370 cases of pesticide poisoning due to drift every year, but farmworker advocates say that this captures 10 percent of the victims at best.

Teresa DeAnda, an environmental justice advocate, stands on the dirt  road between an agricultural field and her neighborhood. (Photo: Voices From the Valley)

Teresa DeAnda, an environmental justice advocate, stands on the dirt road between an agricultural field and her neighborhood. (Photo: Voices From the Valley)

State officials and representatives of agriculture business minimize pesticide drift; Harrison calls this “down-scaling.” They claim it’s accidental, rare, and not an integral part of the system when it operates well. “Unfortunately from time to time we have tragic accidents,” says one Health Department official. “I think the number of incidents that have occurred are really not that significant,” says another. “The system works,” says an agricultural commissioner, “unfortunately, we have people who don’t follow the law.” All of these tactics serve to make the problem seem small and localized.

It’s not easy to get politicians to pay attention to some of the weakest of their constituents, but activists have made some headway by what Harrison calls “pushing it up the scale.” Contesting its framing as a small problem by virtue of its frequency or impact, they argue that pesticide drift is routine, regular, and systemic. “These things happen every day,” says one resident. “You can smell [the pesticide use],” says another. “You can see it. When you drive, it gets on your windshield.” An activist argues: “The art of pesticide application is not precision delivery. It’s sloppy, and it often spills.” They further contest the down-scaling by arguing that pesticide drift is harming the overall air quality. By describing it as air pollution, they make it a state of California problem, one that affects everyone. This makes it more difficult for big agriculture to say it’s no big deal.

An activist upscales in Wasco, California. (Photo: Voices From the Valley)

An activist upscales in Wasco, California. (Photo: Voices From the Valley)

Upscaling and down-scaling are both part of the politics of scale, a tactic that involves making a problem seem big or little. Harrison notes that many environmentalists advocate a local approach. “The local,’” she writes, “is commonly touted as the space in which people can most directly voice their concerns and effect political change, due to local officials’ proximity to constituents and familiarity with local issues.” This case, though, suggests that justice isn’t one size fits all.

If you’d like to know more about the struggle for environmental justice in the San Joaquin Valley, sociologist Tracy Perkins has started a website called Voices From the Valley. You can also check out Remembering Teresa for more on pesticide drift.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Pesticide Drift and the Politics of Scale."

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