Agrochemicals, Environmental Racism, and Environmental Justice in the U.S.
The history of pesticide manufacturing and use in the United States reveals an enduring legacy of environmental racism against communities of color and their collective action for environmental justice. Humans have harnessed the toxicity of chemicals to kill agricultural insects for millennia. However, the rapid proliferation of conventional synthetic agrochemicals increased how much agriculture itself could hurt places and people. The burden of protecting people and places has always fallen on communities rather than governments and institutions.
This report introduces people to historical case studies of agrochemicals, environmental racism, and environmental justice. The report shows that agrochemicals have shaped these themes in U.S. history through a brief overview of pesticides, people, and places. While it does not provide a comprehensive analysis of agrochemicals, environmental racism, or environmental justice., the report presents the reader with principal definitions, histories, and suggested readings to help them continue exploring these themes.
To complement this report, we include an agrochemical-related lesson plan. Together the lesson and the summary invite readers to investigate the past, present, and future of agrochemical in their own home towns.
Educating and engaging young people about the role of agrochemicals will foster future environmental-justice movements. The youth not only care about how their food is grown; they are committed to changing how their food is grown. For this reason, the organic food movement must inform the youth about the dangers of industrial agriculture while it provides an alternative. However, without attending to the role of race and place in agriculture, youth people and the organic foods movement risk replicating patterns of harm across the United States' food system.
Jayson Maurice Porter is a PhD Candidate in environmental history at Northwestern University, where he focuses on agrochemicals, racial ecologies, and environmental justice in Mexico, the United States, and the Caribbean Basin. He is a former Fulbright-García Robles scholar (2019-2020), current research fellow at Noria Mexico and Central America, and Editorial Committee member of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). He has published on agrochemicals in Age of Revolutions, Discurso, Black Perspectives, OkayAfrica, Noria, and more.
The image depicts a landscape of Agrochemical Racism in the San Joaquin Valley. In the middle ground are agricultural spaces, a field of kale and an almond orchard. Growers apply various pesticides (represented in white) to these crops. Pesticide drift moves toward a school and homes in the surrounding areas. In the foreground are agricultural workers. In the background, a stormcloud forms, with pesticide-laden rain falling on the land and into the waterway that flows to the foreground of the page. In the lower left, demonstrators demand a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos. The EPA banned this chemical at the federal level in 2021, in part due to the demands of residents and workers in the Valley.
Alissa Ujie Diamond is an artist, landscape architect, and PhD candidate based in Central Virginia. Visit her store here.
*Note that the illustration is copyright Alissa Ujie Diamond 2022 and reproducible for educational purposes only.