By Nayamin Martinez and Sarah Aird
The San Joaquin Valley is often called “the food basket of the world” because it is one of the major agricultural producers in the United States. Two of the largest counties in this region—Fresno and Tulare—are always competing for first place in crop production, but regardless of which county ranks at the top the combined production exceeds $15 billion (as of 2019).
But this economic bounty comes at a high price for the health and well-being of those who live, work and study near the fields where these crops are grown.
Why? Most of the agricultural production in the San Joaquin Valley relies heavily on the use of pesticides, many of which are highly toxic and have been linked to a wide range of human health harms including cancer, birth defects, autism and asthma. This is especially troubling for the San Joaquin Valley because the region has the highest pesticide use in the state.
According to the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), in 2018 more than 209 million pounds of pesticides were applied in California, and 60% of this amount, 134 million pounds, was used in the San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County ranked No. 1 in the state.
The extensive use of pesticides in the region affects every resident because it exacerbates air pollution given that many pesticides are toxic air contaminants and volatile organic compounds.
Some are more affected than others. Analysis of recent data reveals a pronounced racial disparity. Six of the eight San Joaquin Valley counties where the majority of the population is Latinx use 906% more pesticides per square mile than counties with fewer Latinx residents.
This trend is not new; a groundbreaking report from the California Environmental Health Tracking Program, which analyzed pesticide use in the 15 counties with the highest pesticide use in 2010, found that nearly 500,000 children in California’s rural communities attend schools within a quarter mile of fields where pesticides of public health concern are applied.
Hispanic children account for 61.3% of the population for all public schools with any pesticide use within one-quarter mile of the school boundary and 67.7% of the population for schools in the highest quartile of pesticide use.
To protect children whose schools are close to fields where restricted pesticides are applied, California adopted in 2018 a regulation that prohibits pesticide application Monday–Friday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in fields that are within a quarter mile of a school or a licensed daycare center and requires growers to provide schools with a list of all the pesticides that they will apply.
While not perfect, this new regulation at least gives schools some information about the pesticides being applied. But the millions of residents who live near the fields are not so fortunate. Currently, the growers are only required to submit a notice of intent (NOI) to the local agricultural commissioner, who has the authority to approve or reject the permit; these NOIs are not public.
Except for growers in Kern County, who receive information from neighboring growers before applying pesticides, the rest of the millions of residents in the San Joaquin Valley remain in the dark, not knowing what pesticides are applied or when. Residents must wait until the data are released by the DPR two years afterward.
Of course, one could submit a public information request (PIR), but that information would be received after the pesticides were applied and requires having the time and knowledge of how to submit the PIR, something that most of the residents who live near these fields do not have.
In the past decade, California has moved toward the adoption of policies and programs that undo the environmental injustices that people of color have suffered in the state. For example, in 2012 a new law (AB 685) guaranteed that every person in the state has a right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.
Isn’t it the turn of residents who live close to the fields to have the “right to know” which pesticides will be applied near their homes and before those pesticides are applied so that they can protect themselves?
Families in the San Joaquin Valley who live close to fields should not have to be left to their own resources to protect their health. “When we hear the spraying helicopters at night, we lock ourselves in our home and close all windows…our daughter is asthmatic, and she has trouble breathing when we don’t,” says Eliseo Sotero, a resident of Firebaugh in west Fresno County.
“They are spraying us like cockroaches, and we don’t even know what they’re poisoning us with.”
There have been some efforts to make the “right to know” a reality, at least in other parts of the state. Monterey County implemented a pilot program to notify the public five days in advance of fumigant applications near 10 schools. The program includes a website with maps and other information about fumigant applications and allows for residents to sign up to receive notices by e-mail or text.
In 2020, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) approved the Community Emissions Reduction Plan (CERP), which includes a notification pilot project as a strategy to mitigate the exposure of Shafter residents to air pollution. A quarter million dollars was earmarked to help fund this project.
But it was too good to be true. The Kern County agricultural commissioner, supported by the agricultural industry, refuses to implement it. Lengthy letters have been sent to the DPR explaining the numerous reasons behind the denial.
The Newsom administration seems committed to supporting the “right to know” and to an overall transition of California to sustainable agricultural practices. Both the DPR director, Val Dolcini, and the California Environmental Protection Agency secretary, Jared Blumenfeld, have expressed publicly their support for a notification program and are working with Shafter residents and environmental justice advocates to move the notification pilot project in Shafter from paper to practice.
Newsom banned the brain-harming pesticide chlorpyrifos in 2019 and formed a working group that makes specific recommendations on how to support agricultural practices that do not rely on pesticides. Some of these measures were included in the proposed budget released in January 2021.
Getting the notification pilot project implemented in Shafter is a good next step. But the overall goal is to guarantee that every Californian will have the “right to know” about planned pesticide use.
Nayamin Martinez is the executive director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. Sarah Aird is the co-director of Californians for Pesticide Reform.