Advocacy & Activism, Labor

The Farmworkers’ Journey: NAFTA, Agricultural Exceptionalism, and California’s Farmworkers

From, Michelle Venetucci Harvey, 16 Feb 2012.

We hear a lot about immigration and agriculture, and how immigrants are taking Americans’ jobs, but it’s never that easy, is it? In an EcoFarm Conference session panel titled “The Farmworkers’ Journey,” Dr. Ann López spoke about her research, work with farmers and farmworkers, and introduced us to two California Farm Laborers.

López is the founder of the Center for Farmworker Families, an organization that works to promote awareness and better conditions for binational farmworker families in both Mexico and the United States. She eloquently described her research into NAFTA and the plight of farmworker families.

Starting with West Central Mexico, López explained that the basis of agriculture is the corn, beans, and squash inter-crop, also known as the Three Sisters. This is a polyculture planting that has been so successful that it’s been used for years; the corn provides a pole for the beans to grow, the large squash leaves shade out potential weeds, and beans fix nitrogen in the ground for the following year’s corn. The three plants are also nutritionally complementary, with corn as the good carbohydrate, beans as a quality source of protein, and squash providing vitamins along with oil from the seeds.

The corn varieties that are traditionally planted display a rich genetic diversity that is a far cry from the starchy yellow version we’re used to in the United States. Mexico is a “repository” of genetic diversity that is being threatened. Mexican farming families traditionally hand-select their seeds after harvest, allowing them to select for the largest cobs and kernels. This means that over time each family develops variations that are perfectly suited for their specific geographic region’s weather and soil conditions.

After planting the polyculture on the same land for about two years, families let the land lie fallow so that native shrub can re-claim it. This means that there’s “essentially no damage to the environment, and all the farmers have been supplied with an ample amount of corn, squash, and beans for the year” (López).

López said that pests were never a problem in this system until the introduction of mechanical devices from the United States in the 1940s, along with Green Revolution technologies such as hybrid seeds and GMOs. Families that farmed in Mexico maintained a strong family connection, working together to feed themselves.

In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. No farmworkers were included in the talks that NAFTA is based on, effectively marginalizing their voices and positions. López laid out the assumption that led to NAFTA: the U.S. assumed that Mexican corn production was inefficient. They saw that using the polyculture method, corn was produced at a rate of 4.5 tons per hectare, while the U.S. can produce 16 tons per hectare using intensive chemical production methods. There was no discussion about the other crops that were produced, or the benefit to the farmworker and the environment.

Before NAFTA, the Mexican government had tariffs at the border, which protected the small producers that used polycultures. López pointed out that the government also bought a third to a half of the crop at an extremely good price, and then placed these crops in inner-city stores, allowing good food to be sold at a low price. NAFTA’s goal was to get rid of this tariff so that anyone could sell corn in Mexico, giving a free flow of goods, capital, and information. This meant that the Mexican government could no longer support small production farmers.

Immigration was conspicuously absent from the decision-making process surrounding NAFTA.

On top of an already bad policy, NAFTA didn’t follow through with the agreed upon phasing period. When it was created, there was supposed to be a 15 year phase period in the trade that would allow small producers to adjust their lives. Instead, López pointed out, tariffs were phased out completely within 30 months and the U.S. almost immediately started dumping corn into Mexico.

But of course, if the corn farmers in Mexico and the U.S. were producing their crop with the same constraints, there might not be a problem, right? Unfortunately, the USDA subsidizes American corn farmers at around 3 billion dollars a year, giving them an unfair advantage over small producers in Mexico. These Mexican farmers experienced fast and expansive change, and had to choose between staying in Mexico and starving or going across the border undocumented. They became economic refugees because of a law passed by policymakers in the United States.

In the early 1990s and 2000s, there was a high rate of flight from Mexico and into the United States. There are now 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the majority of which are Mexican. Genetically Modified corn from the United States continues to be dumped in Mexico, creating a loss of the genetic diversity that is so integral to the long-term sustainability of our agricultural systems.

California is home to about a third of all farmworkers living in the country, most of which are Mexican or of Mexican heritage and a third of whom are women. There are children as young as 10 working in the fields, and adults as old as 60.

Then there’s something known as agricultural exceptionalism in the United States. Farmworkers are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). They are exempt from most minimum wage and hour laws, are not guaranteed overtime or mandatory breaks, and there is very little oversight or protections for children. Many farmworkers are at the complete mercy of the farm manager and don’t have access to toilets and drinking water. Many have substandard housing, no unemployment insurance, no ability to collectively bargain, and often experience labor abuses such as heat stress and pesticide exposure. They also have very little incentive or ability to fight for better conditions given their citizenship status and lack of understanding of the U.S. legal system.

López pointed out that while there is a myth that these immigrants want to be in the U.S., in actuality most want to live with their communities in Mexico. Instead of families being united by farm labor, they are separated, either here in the U.S. or bi-nationally across the border. Most farmworkers in the U.S. want their children to be educated so they don’t have to grow up as farmworkers.

Much of this abuse is evidenced by the terrible health outcomes experienced by farmworkers in the U.S. López stated that California is the deadliest state in the U.S. for farmworkers: 725 farmworkers died between 1996 and 2002. Mexicans are actually 80% more likely to die on the job than native workers. This doesn’t even take into consideration the myriad of other health concerns, much of which comes from the two billion pounds of licensed pesticides used in the U.S. There are also a host of psychiatric concerns such as panic attacks, depression, and drug use that are a result of this abusive system. The average life expectancy of a strawberry worker in California is 49 years old.

So what is life like back in Mexico today? López had some startling facts:

  • There is a binational spread of HIV/AIDS, mostly from farmworkers taking diseases back to rural Mexican areas after living in California. People are ostracized from their communities for having the disease, leading many people to lie and spread the disease further. Mexico doesn’t have the health infrastructure to deal with this.
  • The Mexican countryside is being transformed into agricultural production for export, with no limitations on the amount of pesticides used.
  • There are a million Mexican children working in farming.
  • Land that was previously planted in the corn, beans, and squash polyculture is being converted into pasture. The grass for pasture land is so aggressive that the land won’t be able to be re-converted into sustainable farmland.
  • There is increased poverty in the countryside; poverty increased by about 14 million people in the first 5 years of NAFTA. 80% of the people in the Mexican countryside are in poverty.
  • Agrochemical companies are profiting from NAFTA, marketing their products and leaving toxic containers for children to play with along the way.
  • Transgenic corn is being promoted as a “new and improved” corn by a Monsanto subsidiary.

This is pretty upsetting, so López went over some steps we can take to start fixing this problem. We must first work on repealing NAFTA and end agricultural exceptionalism in the NLRA. We must work on comprehensive immigration reform, which has been shown to add to our Gross National Product. (While deporting illegals actually loses us product.) Instead of spending tax dollars on border militarization we could work to eliminate poverty in both countries, allowing Mexican farmers to remain on their land. We could increase fines against abusive farm managers, and provide protection for people who speak up. Finally, we can work to provide stable, safe, low-cost housing for farmworkers in the same place where their children attend school.

To hear more from Dr. Ann López, listen to an interview hereIf you want to know more about the conditions of farmworkers in the U.S., check out the book “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit” by Barry Estabrook. 

Source:, “The Farmworkers’ Journey: NAFTA, Agricultural Exceptionalism, and California’s Farmworkers” by Michelle Venetucci Harvey, 16 Feb 2012.


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