Today on Rootstock Radio Anne O’Connor talks to Marcia Ishii-Eiteman Senior Scientist and Director of the Grassroots Science Program at Pesticide Action Network. Prior to joining Pesticide Action Network in 1996, Marcia worked in Asia and Africa for 14 years on projects ranging from establishing farmer field schools, to community-based rural development, to women’s health, literacy and resource conservation programs.
In talking about the dangers of pesticides, Marcia draws on a wealth of experience: “What I have seen in my decades around—in different continents—is that this reliance on hazardous pesticides has been growing,” she says, adding that “while these pesticides have been marketed as a necessity to growing food and supposedly feeding the world, what they have actually done is unravel our communities’ capacity to provide healthy nourishing food.”
While the environmental and public health risks posed by pesticides are alarming, Marcia explains that this problem reaches beyond the application of toxic chemicals themselves. “The impact of pesticides on communities is compounded by poverty and racism in our society,” she says, adding that vulnerable populations like farm-workers, kids, pregnant women, low-income communities and indigenous communities often suffer the most from irresponsible agricultural practices.
In light of the problems presented by our current agricultural system and the power structures in our society, Marcia encourages listeners to take “small steps toward collective action” by finding the issue that matters most to you and working toward change in that area.
Transcript: Interview with Marsha Ishii-Eiteman of the Pesticide Action Network
Air date: March 6, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m your host, Anne O’Connor, and I have with me today Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist and director of the Grassroots Science Program of Pesticide Action Network of North America. Welcome, Marcia.
MARCIA ISHII-EITEMAN: Thank you, Anne. It’s wonderful to be here.
AOC: Marcia, we’re here to talk, in part, about pesticides today. And pesticides are used all over the world, not always in the way that they’re meant to be used, and sometimes with some really devastating consequences. Can you talk to us about why our average listener would care about pesticides, and why you’ve spent most of your life dedicated to working on this issue?
MIE: Sure, I’d be happy to. And as you say, I’ve been here at Pesticide Action Network for 20 years now, and prior to that I was working in international rural farming development projects in Asia and Africa. So for all these many decades, I have seen the impact of pesticides on communities, on families, in rural and urban settings, on kids’ health. And what we’ve witnessed, not only myself but scientists, medical professionals, farm communities the world over, is that pesticides, which are designed to kill—these are chemicals that are designed to kill other organisms—have had enormously devastating impacts on rural communities, on the environment, on the ecosystems that are the foundation to our ability to produce food, healthy food the world over.
What I have seen in my decades around in different continents is that this reliance on hazardous pesticides has been growing. It’s been pushed aggressively by a small number of mega corporations, the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, and DuPont, and so on. They’ve been pushing these pesticides, really, as a means of shoring up, of maintaining corporate profits. That’s really what’s at the core of the pesticide industry. And as a result of this, we have seen contamination of air, water, and soil; we’ve seen rising rates of childhood cancers; we’ve seen plummeting bee populations and other unraveling of ecosystem functions that are necessary for survival on the planet. And so what ordinary people, as you say, need to understand is that while these pesticides have been marketed as a necessity to growing food and supposedly feeding the world, what they have actually done is unravel our communities’ capacity to provide healthy, nourishing food the world over.
AOC: You know, before you worked at Pesticide Action Network—and you’ve been there a long time—but you worked in Asia and Africa also for a long time, and your work there helped to develop community-led farmer field schools. And these schools, you used a different kind of way to deal with pests. Can you talk to us more about the field schools and, you know, the pesticide companies in these areas and how you could see a different way?
MIE: Yes, this is the flip side and the very positive, encouraging side to this story about the harms of pesticides. In all these regions where I’ve been working, at the same time that pesticide companies have been pushing the sale of highly hazardous pesticides out into these rural areas, in all these places I’ve also seen farmers working together to grow food, profitably and very successfully, using ecological methods. So what has been really exciting to see is this farmers’ field school approach where farmers are centered in the process of asking the questions: What are their challenges on the farms? How are they going to solve them? And they work together to do scientific experiments.
Farmers are the world’s original scientists, out there observing, making [unclear], collecting data, understanding, assessing, and then taking the next step forward. So as scientists, farmers are in the field, in these field schools, teaching each other, conducting experiments together. Rather than just following the pesticide industry’s line of “spray early and often,” these farmers in these agroecological field schools step back, go into the field, investigate, examine, see what are all the different organisms, the insects, those which are pests, those which are not so enemies, or beneficial insects—pollinators, for example, predator insects that will eat other ones. They study all of this, they observe, they make notes. And then, over the course of the season, they take decisions: In this field I might decide to experiment with adding some additional botanical products that I created. They assess: What happened with the yield? What happened with the cost of our inputs? How much did we save by not just spraying early and often?
AOC: You were talking about the camaraderie and the community that was built. And it seems that these days particularly, that is kind of the way forward: that we have to build our communities together, and from the ground up, and choose the lives that we want to live, despite what is happening in the rest of the world. Have you seen that happening here in the U.S. around this issue?
MIE: Yes, I have seen this organizing and this connecting and reaching across, movements across communities, in a really empowering and amazing way, particularly now, at this moment in our country’s history, where we have seen unprecedented waves of repressive and oppressive actions and rulings and executive orders coming from the new administration. But what gives me hope in the midst of all of this really violent, I would say, repression coming from Trump’s administration and from Trump himself is the way in which communities are organizing and coming together, creative ways, powerful mass movements that are filling the streets, just as we saw with the Women’s Marches taking place all over the country.
AOC: Quite literally, people taking it to the streets.
MIE: Yes, and I think we’re going to see more and more of this. There were just countless expressions of resistance, that we will not tolerate the violence and the threats against the people in our country, against immigrants, Muslim peoples; the threats against anyone standing up and providing sanctuary in cities to immigrants; the racism and bigotry that has come out from this new administration, and the waves of new hate acts and violence, gender-based violence, violence against blacks and other peoples of color. So, with all of this, what we are seeing is an amazing uprising in the streets, and communities beginning to talk—and not only talk but come together to figure out what resistance is really going to look like. And that gives me a great deal of hope.
You know, even before this administration took the reins of power, we have seen communities organizing and reaching across the country. And I think what is really critical is we’ve had such challenges and we’ve seen the real harms from hundreds of years—the legacy of racism, of slavery in this country, of land being taken from Native peoples by the first Europeans who came and invaded and took over this continent. And then we have seen not only the stealing of land but the stealing of bodies through slavery. And so this racism is embedded in our society here in the United States.
And in this country, as well, we have seen farmers and farm workers coming together to implement agroecology. And by agroecology, I mean this approach to equitable and sustainable farming that integrates local and indigenous practices with ecological science and principles—a dynamic process that is grounded in millennia of ancestral knowledge but is continually evolving, as I described in the farmer field schools in Asia. So here in the United States, we have had agroecology encuentros, or encounters, learning exchanges, farmer-to-farmer learning exchanges, where farmers have come together with farm workers, who, in many communities, are implementing these practices in community gardens or on their own land. And so these agroecology encuentros or learning exchanges are beginning to happen around the country.
AOC: So it’s not enough for people to understand the tactics and the procedures. It’s really a whole-system approach where people have to be educated and learn the ways to help their communities thrive in all these different areas.
MIE: That’s right. And I think that is what is really unique about agroecology, because it’s much more than a set of practices. It is grounded in [an] ecological approach to sustainable farming and does provide that bedrock of grounding practice and scientific ecological principles in developing really sustainable methods, but it’s much more than practice. It’s also a social movement, a political movement, one that is led by small-scale farmers or producers the world over, really, who are calling for the transformation of the power structures in society that have kept so many communities hungry and impoverished. And that is because agroecology looks at the whole agro-ecosystem, including the people and the institutions and the systems that are at the base of the food and farming system. So it calls for political changes to the food and farming systems that we need in order to create not just an ecologically sustainable system, although that is core as well, but also a socially just and equitable system that is grounded in justice and democratic relationships of respect.
AOC: And right now, the food system is struggling in many of these areas. And the system was founded on a system that benefited white people, and you still see that in the system. And so that is work that first has to be, you know, the people who are in the systems of power have to recognize and work with that as well, right? We need all the players here.
MIE: Absolutely. What we have seen just in the last couple of days, Trump signing executive orders that directly threaten the lives, rights, and livelihoods of people of color, particularly immigrants, Muslims, refugees. And in terms of connecting that with the food system, the vast majority of workers in the food system, the farm workers who grow and harvest our food, or others who work in very low-paying jobs in the restaurant industry, many of these are undocumented workers. So these recent orders are a direct assault on their lives and livelihoods.
But as you say, this is not new, although the extremes of the white supremacist ideology that Trump has brought into the presidency, and the bigotry and hatred that has come out of that, this is kind of unprecedented in the extremes in which it’s being displayed from the highest levels of government. However, this is not new. This country was founded on the very bitter legacy of European invasion and colonization or appropriation of land, stealing of land from the Native peoples, and then stealing of bodies, of people, from Africa and from other regions. So we have a system, a social system, a society, as well as a farming system, that is based in slavery, in theft, in racism. So long as we have such racism, and particularly anti-black racism, we will not be able to get to the equitable, sustainable, ecologically sound and nourishing society that we are seeking to reach.
So we must reject all forms of racism. And I believe it’s critical to understand that black liberation in particular is fundamental to the liberation of all oppressed peoples.
AOC: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist and director of the Grassroots Science Program at Pesticide Action Network of North America. We’re talking today about racism and how it plays into the system of agriculture in our country, and what the new administration in the White House means for these systems, and how people can continue to join together and energize their own local communities.
And I want to just go back to a point that you made, Marcia, which is that these systems are alive—these systems of racism are not old and done with. We have a situation in agriculture in the United States in which most of the large farms, and indeed most of the farmland, is held in the hands of white people, which has its own legacy and its own history and has been passed down from generation to generation, and has many benefits—but that means that because of that reality, there’s a large segment of people that have been left out of that land ownership.
MIE: Yes. We have seen, over the course of the past decades, a systematic dispossession of black farmers of their land, through racist policies and actions of agencies like the USDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just back in the, say in the 1920s, there were nearly one million—900,000 black farmers; about 14 percent of all farmers were black in the 1920s. And that was after, of course, recovering from decades of the impacts of slavery and the sharecropping in the South. But yet, in the 1920s, close to one million black farmers. That dropped to, over the course of a number of decades, 18,000 farmers in the mid-1990s, a drastic collapse of black farmers’ access to and control over their land.
And this did not happen by accident. There was a systematic denial by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of black farmers’ applications for loans; denial of jobs or disaster payments, technical assistance, things like providing loans and credit in a timely way. And we have stories here of black farmers explaining how they went to the USDA with an application for a loan, so the white USDA officer spit on them, threw the application into the trashcan—this literally happened—and then, you know, walked out of the room. So that led to the by now famous, or infamous, Pigford lawsuit against the USDA, which forced the USDA to provide some compensation. It actually took two lawsuits because the first one, the USDA just gave a small amount and then closed the door and said the deadline had been passed, and that required another lawsuit. And so that’s what we had to, what the black farmers had to go through to get a small amount of recompense.
But it’s still, this is still happening. Just in the last year or two, we are seeing foreclosures on black farmers. The case of Dorothy and Eddie Wise is a classic and tragic and outrageous example in which the Farm Services Agency of USDA basically forced Dorothy and Eddie Wise into this situation of indebtedness and then came in and, with military actions, forced them off the land and put their land up for auction, which was then bought by a neighbor who had been eyeing their property for many years. So this is still going on today.
It’s thanks to the courageous and unflagging work of organizations like the Rural Coalition or the National Black Farmers Association or the Federation of Southern Cooperatives that we are seeing, beginning to see a return of black farmers being able to come back to the land. And we’re now up to 44,000 black farmers. That’s an improvement from before, but still the system of racism in the farming system, in the food system, exists and is one of the deepest challenges, I think, for our entire society in this country to grapple with.
AOC: So I guess I want to link this subject to the primary subject of your organization, and that’s pesticides. And can you talk about what’s the link? How do disadvantaged people suffer more because of the pesticide use in our country? I’m thinking about communities where there’s spraying and there’s no regulation and there’s nobody overlooking. I’m thinking about the four children that were killed in Texas earlier this month in a trailer park where there was an attempt to clear the pesticide with water. And what happens in those situations?
MIE: Yeah, the impacts of pesticides on communities is compounded by poverty and, as we’ve been discussing, and racism in our society. So it’s communities [that] have the least access to protections from the harms of pesticides. So then these would include farm workers who are really on the front lines, right, of pesticide impacts. They are the ones who are out there applying the pesticides. Farm workers, for the vast majority, are communities of color, many from Mexico, many from other regions of Latin America that have immigrated here. Many are undocumented and, because of this, do not have the ability, the security to speak up when they have been poisoned, when they’re being forced to go into the fields to harvest, in violation of pesticide “safety” regulations. In California we have a number of regulations that prevent companies from forcing farm workers from going into the field to harvest immediately after a pesticide application, but this is often ignored. And if you are undocumented, speaking up is going to either get you, you know, you’ll lose your job or you may be reported. These are such severe threats that it makes it very difficult for farm workers to speak out about the kinds of exposures that they are being subjected to.
Likewise, pesticide contaminations of the water system, incidences of pesticide drift coming across the fields into households. Here in California we have many incidences of pesticide drift coming into schools and playgrounds. A further challenge is being able to access immediate health care responses for this. So of course there’s an issue of prevention; further, once you have experienced some pesticide poisoning, more often than not the communities that are most vulnerable to that will have less access to adequate health care, to immediate high-level emergency hospital care.
And the impacts on children in these communities is especially important, because children are, with their small body sizes and their fast pace of development, are uniquely particularly susceptible to the harms of pesticides on their developing systems, on their brains, on their hormone systems. Pregnant women as well are particularly susceptible. So there are all these disproportionate impacts of pesticide harms on what we would call frontline communities: farm workers, also kids, pregnant women, low-income communities, indigenous communities. All of these communities bear the brunt.
AOC: Marcia, you work in a field that is intense and can feel like an uphill battle. I’m wondering if you can tell us, what is a solution here. Give us a solution that is really something that people can do. If listeners are in their communities, is there something that people can, an action that they can take to help advance some change in these areas?
MIE: There is so much that we can do right now. There are small, everyday actions that people can take, such as getting to know your local farmer, buying local organic. But I want to emphasize that while these actions are very, very good things to do when you’re able to do them, acting alone won’t be enough to drive the big changes we need to transform the power structures that are keeping this current flawed system in place. But we can take small steps that lead towards collective action.
One example is right here in my neighborhood. We have a very nice block get-together a couple times a year for social events. But for the first time this year, we have come together as a community in one person’s living room, packed—like 40 people packed, and this was after the election—to talk about how can we come together. We need to do much more than get to know and be kind to each other in the neighborhood. We need to be educating ourselves. When we say we will resist threats and harms against the communities in our midst, when we say we want to work towards a healthy, nourishing, thriving food and farming system, what does this mean? What will we do?
So coming together in your neighborhood. It can start with, you know, as we started, a potluck dinner. You can find a community garden; if there isn’t one, consider starting one. Somehow, when you get together with neighbors or with your community, work the soil, plant seeds, grow food, or share food, and have thoughtful conversations about what is happening, what is inspiring, what we want to throw our energies into to really bring us towards that powerful community-led, democratic, ecologically sane and sound society, these conversations can lead in unexpectedly powerful directions.
So I’m saying we have a tremendous amount of knowledge and resources from workers, farmers, doctors and lawyers and, you know, people with social media skills, communication skills, knowledge on specific and passion around particular issues. Even if you’re not an expert but you feel like, “I’m really concerned about climate change”—find the issue that most brings you joy. Because there’s so much to struggle against, and the more we focus on struggle—and I do think, like, resistance is really critical, but we’re going to burn ourselves out. So we also have to start with joy, and the joy and love that come from when we get together and we’re working towards the positive. I think we get a lot of joy from human, one-on-one interaction with new people that we haven’t known before. There’s something so beautiful about making these connections that really touches us deeply as human beings. Human beings are social creatures, and joy comes from community.
There’s also, I would really encourage folks to find the organization that is taking up these issues that really touch your heart, and join those organizations. So of course, Pesticide Action Network, we are one, but there are many organizations that are working towards social justice, ecological justice, gender justice, climate justice. I think it’s really critical that the work connects with justice and democratizing and taking power. And there are so many organizations out there. Many of them have done a lot of the groundwork that might seem kind of overwhelming if you’re just getting into this for the first time, like which, you know, what petitions do I sign? It’s okay. That information—there’s so much out there that’s available to find on the Web. There are some really critical actions that need to be taken right now for Pesticide Action Network. You can go to our website, www.PANNA.org.
AOC: So if we want a sane and equitable and just food system for everyone, then we need to step forward and we need to take care of one another, and we need to get at it and resist. So, Marcia, thank you so much for your insights and your passion and all the work that you’re doing out there with Pesticide Action Network.
MIE: Thank you so much.
AOC: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today. We’ll see you next week.
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