Our “Right to Know” When Pesticides Are Applied

On Nov. 10, the small town of Orosi in northern Tulare County was the setting as more than a hundred residents from various counties across the San Joaquin Valley (Kern, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus, Tulare) raised their voices to demand the following from the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR):

  • The exact location where pesticides will be applied.
  • Notification to include not only restricted materials but also all pesticides listed in Proposition 65 (which requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm) and others that researchers have found could cause cancer.
  •  Notifications be made in various languages (Spanish, Mixteco, Zapoteco and other indigenous languages) and through multiple methods (text messages, e-mails, a website).

Eloquently, for more than two hours, community members huddled with environmental justice organizations that have been fighting the fact that it is primarily low-income people of color who are most burdened by pesticide exposure.

Participants included residents of rural areas who live next to the fields where pesticides are applied, advocates who have fought for decades to free communities of pesticides and even a small Filipino farmer of Orosi, who said “knowing what pesticides are applied is not enough, we need more, we need to stop applying these chemicals that are killing us, making us sick and making big growers richer.”

Overall, the sentiment was the same, we need to know and we need to know now, not until 2024, when the DPR is scheduled to finalize the statewide pesticide notification system.

The development of a statewide pesticide notification pilot began in 2021, when Governor Newsom allocated $10 million in the 2021–2022 state budget and commissioned the DPR to develop a statewide system that provides information to the public about the pesticides used around them.

Since August 2021, the new DPR director, Julie Henderson, and her team have organized meetings with county agricultural commissioners (CACs), visited counties with a large ag presence (including Fresno) and huddled with some environmental justice groups.

The DPR hired professionals from the California State University Sacramento Consensus and Collaboration Program to lead a series of focus groups and webinars to listen to multiple stakeholders including residents, other regulatory agencies, community organizations, regulated industries (farmers, professional applicators, registrants, commodity associations) and ag commissioners, among others.

The DPR published on its website a summary of the findings from this first series of virtual focus groups, which evidenced differences of opinions in who should receive the notifications, when they should receive them and how notifications should be made.

The format of the focus groups/webinars was strongly criticized by community advocates because the participation of residents was limited to less than one minute, other stakeholders were given more time to express their opinions and the facilitation was done poorly. 

The result of this criticism was that the DPR changed its facilitation team and recruited researchers at UC Davis (Clare Cannon and Bernadette Austin) who seem to have more experience doing participatory projects.

The second round of virtual workshops that the DPR carried out in June 2022 with the assistance of the UC Davis team was better organized, the time given to participants was more equitably distributed and written comments were accepted in English and Spanish.

Nevertheless, the subsequent decision to organize just two in-person workshops for the entire state and one virtual workshop in the fall of 2022 did not seem appropriate. It was not easy for residents eager to receive a notification system to drive to Orosi or Ventura to join the in-person workshops.

Transportation barriers, obligations picking up children after school or not being able to leave work early in the middle of the week (the Ventura workshop was held on a Monday and the Orosi one on a Wednesday) got in the way of many rural residents who would have wanted to express their opinions.

Also disappointing was the design of the in-person workshops. The DPR had planned a “world-style café” format, with three stations in which participants would 1) go around and learn about the DPR’s work, 2) receive an update on the notification pilots that were implemented in four counties and 3) provide input (for which only one station was provided).

But participants in the Orosi workshop decided otherwise. Community members took center stage and changed the meeting format. They did not rotate to the different stations, instead remaining in one section of the hall and waiting in line to express their opinions.

Although ag commissioners from Tulare, Fresno and Sutter counties were in attendance, as well as two representatives of major ag industry groups (Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, and Roger Ison, president of the California Association of Growers), none attempted to make public remarks. They quietly observed, perhaps in disbelief that the community had taken over the meeting, disrupting the plans that the DPR and its paid facilitators had envisioned.

It was a powerful moment, especially when residents walked into the room chanting and then waited patiently for their turn to speak.

But the patience of community members is wearing thin. They want the DPR to act faster.

If growers in Kern County can receive information from neighboring growers before they apply pesticides and if four counties (Ventura, Riverside, Stanislaus and Santa Cruz) were able to implement a notification pilot this year, why do the rest of the San Joaquin Valley’s residents need to wait until 2024 to exercise our “right to know” that pesticides will be applied near our homes before the applications take place so that we can protect ourselves? 

The health and well-being of those who live, work and study near the fields where crops are grown and pesticides are applied are important and those persons deserve to be protected—not only the crops of the growers that insist that pesticide use is necessary to maintain our title as “the food basket of the world.”

California can do better, not only by notifying residents before pesticides are applied but also by reducing the use of pesticides.

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