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A Diet of Farmworker Wellness

I was recently invited to speak at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York, on a topic which is close to my heart: How does one have a diet that promotes wellness?

I probably don’t need to specify that I spoke about a plant-only diet of organic, whole foods. I touched upon several concerns: The primary one, regarding my own well-being; secondarily, the well-being of animals, both wild and domestic; and thirdly, the well-being of the soil and water of our fair planet.

To me, these concerns interweave with and support one another, providing a beautiful and robust justification for having an organic plant-only diet. To be honest, they are on equal footing, not one of them being more important than the other.

But there was another concern I brought to the discussion, one which I believe should be given equal time and prominence with the other reasons. It is the well-being of agricultural workers.

Plainly put, industrial, chemical-based agriculture has a monstrously devastating impact on the people working in the fields.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 farmworkers are poisoned on the job [annually] due to pesticide exposure. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that farmworkers suffer the highest rate of chemical-related illness of any occupational group: 5.6 per 1,000 workers.” (1)

The International Labor Organization has this to say about agricultural work:

“In terms of fatalities, injuries and work-related ill-health, it is one of the three most hazardous sectors of activity (along with construction and mining). According to ILO estimates, at least 170,000 agricultural workers are killed each year. This means that workers in agriculture run twice the risk of dying on the job compared with workers in other sectors. Agricultural mortality rates have remained consistently high in the last decade compared with other sectors in which fatal accident rates have generally decreased. Millions more agricultural workers are seriously injured in workplace accidents involving agricultural machinery or poisoned by pesticides and other agrochemicals. Furthermore, widespread under-reporting of deaths, injuries and occupational diseases in the agricultural sector means that the real picture of the occupational health and safety of farm workers is likely to be worse than official statistics indicate.” (2)

These summary level figures indicate the fomenting ‘perfect storm’ conditions in which field workers labor.

One factor that contributes to this maelstrom is that we do not even know the total number of agricultural workers in the US:

“The number of total migrant and seasonal farmworkers [in the US] is estimated as from 2.5 to 5 million.” (3)

Neither do we know the number of pesticide related illnesses, due to a paucity of information and neglect of reporting at various government levels.

“The difficulty of determining rates of pesticide illness is exemplified by the lack of ability to estimate the number of cases of acute pesticide illness. Although 30 states require reporting of occupational pesticide-related illnesses, many cases are not reported. Only 8 states have surveillance programs for these illnesses, and poison control center data can also lead to underascertainment. At this time only 5 states have legislation requiring extensive reporting of pesticide use, and 4 of these states require growers to report pesticide use on crops. Data collected from these pesticide use reporting programs include product name, amount applied, location, and crop type. Pesticide use reporting systems can then be linked to episodes of pesticide illness, but clinicians often are not aware when pesticide illness reporting is required in their state.” (4)

In addition to these hard-to-determine figures, the US has no national incident reporting system. This is a critical gap, since half of all agricultural workers travel from state to state, and therefore are not likely to show up in state databases.

Further, state workers’ compensation programs, which could conceivably provide estimates on such incidents, vary drastically among the states, even to the point that some completely exempt agricultural workers from benefits.

Disability programs are also inconsistent from state to state. In my current home state of New York, farmworkers are not eligible for disability pay. This complete ineligibility carries with it the absolute lack of reportage.

Health insurance information, a potentially rich source of information for epidemiologic studies, functions poorly in this regard because most farmworkers—about 70% of them–lack health insurance.

As a final insult, even death certificates, which often list the cause of death as well as the occupation of the deceased, cannot be relied upon.

“The transient nature of farmwork may have important implications with respect to studies done using death certificates… Death certificates may not reflect the contribution of farm work to a worker’s total work life.” (5)

At best, we can only say, with gross understatement, that we have a massive problem. While the lack of information is a problem for those who track the diseases, the diseases themselves are the problem of the workers. In the absence of workers’ compensation, disability pay, and insurance, all they can do is suffer through it all.

While they are suffering, working conditions worsen.

The EPA and other government organizations do regulate, if minimally, the use of pesticides and other hazardous materials. However, they provide frightening loopholes. For example,

“The Worker Protection Standard does not apply when pesticides are applied on an agricultural establishment…for research uses of unregistered pesticides.” (6)

In essence, this one exception makes American agricultural workers into laboratory test animals.

There’s more:

“Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) requires that pesticides sold or distributed in the United States be registered by the EPA. Under this statute, the EPA can only register a pesticide if it determines that the pesticide, when used in accordance with its label, will not cause unreasonable adverse effects to human health or the environment, taking into account the risks and benefits to the agricultural economy. …Since FIFRA mandates the use of a cost-benefit analysis, even health risks ‘of concern’ have been disregarded when the EPA determines that the benefits of using a pesticide outweigh the risks.” (7)

In the cost-benefit analysis, benefits are measured in terms of money. The costs or risks are measured in terms of illnesses or deaths. As has been mentioned above, these are unlikely to present themselves. It’s a bargaining process, pitting Pedro against Monsanto, like a cage match between David and Godzilla.

David, in this case, might even be a minor, perhaps even under 10 years of age. Children are very active in American fields—and these aren’t the fields of the family farm. These are industrial fields, in one of the world’s most hazardous occupations, where the only connection to family is their mother or father working alongside them for substandard pay with the exclusion of all social benefits.

“Current US law provides no minimum age for children working on small farms so long as they have their parent’s permission. Children ages 12 and up may work for hire on any farm with their parent’s consent, or if they work with their parents on the same farm. Once children reach age 14, they can work on any farm even without their parents’ permission. Outside of agriculture, children must be at least 16 years old to work, with a few exceptions: 14- and 15-year-olds can work in specified jobs such as cashiers, grocery baggers, and car washers, subject to very restricted conditions…Children [in agricultural fields] often work 10 or more hours a day: at the peak of the harvest they may work daylight to dusk, with few breaks.” (8)

This problem is as old as industrial agriculture itself, exacerbated by enough variables to make one’s head ache. But the most unforgiveable of these variables is this: children working in agriculture are explicitly exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. (9)

The plight of children in agriculture has been the focus of extensive studies by the Human Rights Watch group, who issued comprehensive reports in 2000 and 2010. Many people in our affluent, developed, and progressive society might be surprised that a worldwide human rights watch group wants to protect our children. They wouldn’t need to do so if we ourselves would.

All of these problems comprise an almost insurmountable and impenetrable wall, a barrier which protects industrial agriculture corporations from the growing indignation from the public. But no matter how angry the public becomes, it take will decades to dismantle the current legislation and enact proper protections.

Asking an agricultural worker to find her wellbeing in the current scenario is like asking her to find a strand of hay in a needle-stack. We force her into this impossible and excruciating task every time we consume the products from chemical-based agriculture, especially animal products.

According to the massive landmark report from the UN in 2010, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials:”

“Animal products are important because more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals, not people.” (10)

The magnitude of this figure cannot be exaggerated. It means, literally, that half of what we are doing is unnecessary. We are poisoning agricultural workers, children included, as a matter of choice. When we choose to eat animal products—beef, pork, mutton, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and countless derivatives—we are supporting needless sickness and dying among the legally defenseless people who grow our food. Is there a dietary choice that is more monstrous?

By choosing a plant-based diet, we can immediately cut this impact in half. If we go further, and choose only organically produced grains, vegetables, legumes, and seeds, we are approaching eradication of the problem. We seldom have such power in our own hands.

A diet that truly promotes wellness includes regard for everyone involved. My plate does not exist in isolation. It is the product of low-paying manual labor from millions of foodworkers, whose efforts result in my own sustenance at the sacrifice of their own wellbeing.

Our sustenance has always been dependent upon others. It is only fair that we treat with respect those who feed us. To those who might bristle at such hints of altruism, consider this piece of rational-self interest: it is not wise to poison those who are responsible for our food supply.



This is not an immigration issue, legal or otherwise. The regulations were written for citizens, of course. And the chemicals are quite non-discriminatory. They will affect anyone who picks your supposed “Clean Fifteen.”

This is not about whether workers in a third world country are being fairly treated. This is about whether workers in our own developed, educated, privileged, enlightened country are being fairly treated.

As for immigrant farm labor, we have been dependent upon foreign-born workers since the founding of our country—and the problem has never been resolved satisfactorily. Our current immigrant and farm labor problems are extensions of 19th century farm-worker issues, which became exponentially more complex in the 20th century.


For further reading on the issues faced by agricultural workers, please see the following books, reports, and websites.

The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, Cindy Hahamovitch, The University of North Carolina Press

The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain, Food Chain Workers Alliance,

What’s Wrong with Industrial Agriculture, Organic Consumers Association,

The National Center for Farmworker Health, at

Farmworker Justice, at



1. “Pesticide Safety,” Farmworker Justice,

2. “Agriculture: a hazardous work,” International Labour Organization,–en/index.htm

3. “Studying Health Outcomes in Farmworker Populations Exposed to Pesticides,” National Center for Biotechnology Information,

4. Ibid.

This report further illuminates the problem: “For farmworkers to be counted in the systems mentioned above as having pesticide-related illness, clinicians must both diagnose and report these illnesses. Most clinicians receive little training in occupational and environmental health (Graber et al. 1995; Schenk 1996). The National Strategies for Health Care Providers, a working group organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that clinicians do not generally receive specific training in diagnosing pesticide poisonings or other pesticide-related health effects (National Environmental Education and Training Foundation 2002). One study of Washington State clinicians demonstrated that few appeared to be well versed in the diagnosis or treatment of pesticide poisonings. Even clinicians from agricultural areas on average could identify only 75% of pesticide symptom questions correctly.”

5. Ibid.

6. EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) for Agricultural Pesticides,

7. “Pesticide Safety,” Farmworker Justice,

8. “Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture,” Human Rights Watch,

9. US Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Fair Labor Standards Act,

10. “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials,” United Nations Environment Panel,

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