Two days before Cesar Chavez’s March 31 birthday, Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency ordered a stunning reversal on the brain-harming pesticide chlorpyrifos, rejecting a petition to ban its use. EPA’s own scientific studies show chlorpyrifos is not safe and even low levels of exposure can cause irreparable harm and damage children’s developing brains. Farm worker children are especially vulnerable since they’re exposed to pesticides when they drift from nearby fields.
Other EPA gains may also be at risk, including new pesticide protections for farm workers the United Farm Workers helped convince the Obama administration to issue in 2015.
So as we observe Earth Day and the 24th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s passing, let us recall his last long public fast, of 36 days in summer 1988, over the pesticide poisoning of farm workers and their children. Here are excerpts from his first speech after that ordeal in 1989, at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.:
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. Elia worked in the table grapes around Delano, Calif. 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, Calif. a small farm town only a few miles from Delano, where the Rodriguezes live.
"Once your son has cancer, it's pretty hard to take," Johnnie’s father told us. "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…
The chief source of carcinogens in such communities is pesticides from the vineyards and fields that encircle them. Health experts believe the high rate of cancer in McFarland is from pesticides and fertilizers leaching into the water system from surrounding fields…
Our critics sometimes ask, “why should the United Farm Workers worry about pesticides when farm workers have so many other more obvious problems?”
…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 our families. 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…
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. They 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…
People thought pesticides were the key to an abundance of food. They thought pesticides were the solution; but they were the problem.
The problem is this mammoth agribusiness system. The problem is the huge farms. The problem is not allowing the land to lay fallow and recover. The problem is the abandonment of cultural practices that have stood the test 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…
We see these insane practices 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 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…
I studied this wanton abuse of nature. I read the literature, heard from the experts about what pesticides do to our land and food.
I talked with farm workers, listened to their families, and shared their anguish and fears. I spoke out against the cycle of death.
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 , I embarked on a 36-day unconditional, water-only fast.
The fast was first and foremost directed at myself, to purify my own body, mind and soul…
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.