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Farmworkers and Organics - Vecinos

Marianne Martinez
  • July 23, 2018

By: Olivia Payne, Summer 2018 Intern

At Vecinos, we provide extensive health education about pesticides to farmworkers because the farmworkers exposed to these chemicals have a higher risk for pesticide-related illnesses, ranging from respiratory problems to cancers. Our patients even receive an EPA booklet explaining to them the dangers of pesticides and explaining their rights in using, handling, and avoiding pesticides.

One of our camps works at an organic farm in the region and when we ask how they protect themselves from pesticides, their answer is that they aren’t exposed to pesticides since it’s an organic farm. The truth is, while organic pesticides are a good alternative, they still pose an unknown risk to the workers who use the pesticides and handle the crops.  Organic pesticides are often used in large-scale to receive the same productivity that synthetic pesticides have and there isn’t much research about their effects on the pesticide applicator. When used at such a large scale, some chemicals can become harmful. “Virtually all chemicals can be shown to be dangerous at high doses,” explain scientists, “and this includes the thousands of natural chemicals that are consumed every day in food, but most particularly in fruits and vegetables.”1

In organic farming, pesticides are derived from natural sources and are not synthetically manufactured.  The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is designed by law to advise the National Organic Program on which substances should be allowed or prohibited.  Members of the NOSB follow a specific criterion in determining the viability of the pesticide and they vote on the need for the substance and its impacts on human health and the environment.  One major issue with the criterion is that if a certain substance is not available in an organic form to be able to sustain organic agriculture, the NOSB will vote the substance to be viable in organic agriculture.1 Christie Wilcox from Scientific American states that “there is nothing safe about the chemicals used in organic agriculture. Period. This shouldn’t be that shocking – after all, a pesticide is a pesticide.” 1 And so, it is important to keep your health in mind when purchasing organic foods, as well as the health of organic farmworkers.

Berkley2 found that about half of natural chemicals are found to be carcinogenic.  A recent study compared the effectiveness of a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture versus a synthetic pesticide, imidan. Rotenone and pyrethrin are two common organic pesticides; imidan is considered a “soft” synthetic pesticide (i.e., designed to have a brief lifetime after application, and other traits that minimize unwanted effects). It was found that up to 7 applications of the rotenone- pyrethrin mixture were required to obtain the level of protection provided by 2 applications of imidan.  It seems unlikely that 7 applications of rotenone and pyrethrin are really better for the environment than 2 applications of imidan, especially when rotenone is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

It should be noted that we don’t know for certain which system is more harmful. This is because we do not look at organic pesticides the same way that we look at conventional pesticides. We don’t know how long these organic pesticides persist in the environment, or the full extent of their effects.3 There has not been much research on the health effects of natural pesticides to the farmworkers who use them like there has with synthetic.  With the lack of research in mind, we should still take precautions when handling natural pesticides, and we should educate farmworkers to do the same.

For further reading check out:


  1. Christie Wilcox, “Are Lower Pesticide Residues a Good Reason to Buy Organic? Probably Not.” Scientific American, September 24. 2012, Accessed July 9th, 2018,
  2. Louis Hom. (Blog.)  University of California, Berkeley, n.d., Accessed July 8th, 2018,
  1. Mile McEvoy, “Organic 101: Allowed and Prohibited Substances,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, January 25, 2012, Accessed July 10th, 2018,