USDA Pilot Program to Address Agricultural Workforce Needs and Improve Working Conditions Should Be Paired with Increased Protections from Congress

Statement by Dr. Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Sep 22, 2023

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today announced a pilot program to help agricultural employers address a need for more workers while also promoting safer and healthier work environments for farmworkers.

Below is a statement by Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“In tending and harvesting the food that ends up on all of our tables, farmworkers are subject to dangerous and unhealthy conditions that result in one of the highest fatal occupational injury rates in the country. Heat alone causes farmworkers to die at 35 times the rate of other civilian workers. Add in toxic pesticides, physically demanding labor and a lack of labor protections, farmworkers are some of our most vulnerable and at-risk workers.

“It is encouraging to see the USDA make a concentrated effort to promote safer and healthier environments for farmworkers. This effort is notable for its innovation – the USDA has never done anything like this before. The data that comes out of this pilot program will be valuable in understanding how to improve conditions for the 2.4 million farmworkers across this country.

“But food and farmworkers have been clear in their demands for a greater role in determining the policies that shape our food system and their lives. We need a fundamental shift that puts worker interests on par with those of farmers and recognizes that all laborers have a right to dignified wages and safe conditions. The next food and farm bill provides an opportunity to recognize the essential contributions of farmworkers. Voters earlier this summer recognized this and 110 groups representing farmers, workers, labor, and rural interests support taking broader action through the food and farm bill to protect workers.

“The Voice for Farm Workers Act is one such opportunity to shape the USDA and our food system to be more grounded in the experiences of frontline workers by equipping the USDA with the tools to integrate workers’ priorities and feedback.

“We have heard directly from farmworkers about the need to better protect them while on the job, and for investment in research and innovation to keep food and farmworkers safe. This pilot program is a good start by the USDA, and Congress should pair it with increased investments in research and education on how to keep farmworkers safe and healthy.”

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. And the 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 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 analysis by UCS. For comparison, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture distributed a total of $1.8 billion in research funding in 2022.