As Climate Change Increases Risks to Farmworker Health, Federal Research Funding Fails to Keep Pace

Next Food and Farm Bill Must Increase Investments in Research and Education on Threats to Farmworker Health, Science Group Says

Published May 23, 2023

Media Contact

Farmworkers are exposed to health and safety risks from toxic pesticides, extreme heat and dangerous work environments while performing the labor that underpins the U.S. food and agriculture industry valued at $1.264 trillion in 2021. Meanwhile, federal agencies focused on agriculture and health are investing just $16.2 million a year in research and education on farmworker health, or roughly $6.75 per farmworker, according to an analysis released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The study found that across the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs just 55 projects related to farmworker health received $64.9 million in federal funding between 2019 and 2022, an average of $16.2 million per year. For comparison, NIFA distributed a total of $1.8 billion in research funding in 2022.

“Underinvestment in research means we are missing critical information needed to develop innovative solutions to health risks among farmworkers as well as opportunities to connect farmworkers with potentially life-saving resources,” said Dr. Alice Řezníčková, interdisciplinary scientist in the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “The next Food and Farm Bill needs to invest in protecting the people who make our food system run.”

The agricultural industry sustains one of the highest fatal injury rates in the nation. Hot weather is a pronounced threat, with farmworkers dying of heat-related causes at roughly 20 times the rate of workers in other civilian occupations. And risks facing farmworkers are growing under climate change. As the number of hot days increases and climate change drives an increase in pests and weeds that causes greater pesticide use, a growing body of research shows that heat stress makes farmworkers more susceptible to toxic pesticides, amplifying the potential for harm.

But research is not keeping pace. Just nine percent of projects in four years focused on heat.

Dr. Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, general coordinator for The Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc., says education and research to address risks is also a priority.

“Our own research has found that farmworkers need resources like training, education and labor protections that allow them to stay safe and hydrated to prevent heat-related illness,” said Xiuhtecutli. “We need additional research that focuses on systemic threats to farmworker health and can be used to reduce harms caused by heat stress and pesticides, such as implementing heat stress protection policies, reducing exposure to dangerous pesticides and developing safer pesticide alternatives. Public research is a critical tool in developing new, innovative solutions to the challenges facing farmworkers and their communities.”

Meanwhile, low wages, lack of legal protections and access to health care leave farmworkers uniquely vulnerable to food insecurity and violence. Limited research shows across various communities anywhere from 47% to 80% of farmworker families experience food insecurity, well above the average U.S. rate, but the UCS analysis identified only one project on food and nutrition security. Similarly, a recent study by Human Rights Watch found that 80% of surveyed female farmworkers reported they had been a victim of or witnessed workplace sexual harassment but just one study focused on violence and trauma among farmworkers. What’s more, while women account for 34% of farmworkers, none of the projects reviewed named women as a target population.

Only a few research projects focused on especially vulnerable populations such as youth farmworkers or farmworkers with disabilities. No studies focused on LGBTQ+ and gender nonconforming farmworkers or Indigenous farmworkers.

The UCS report recommends the next Food and Farm Bill double the amount of funding for NIFA to conduct work that directly engages farmworkers as partners in developing research and education priorities, with increased focus on climate-related risks and pesticide exposure and underrepresented populations with specific needs and vulnerabilities, including women and LGBTQ+ farmworkers.