Dolores Huerta: Still Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights

Legendary feminist and workers’ rights activist Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to sound the alarm on a common herbicide used on millions of acres of cropland in the U.S. that could be endangering the health and lives of the very people who produce our food—farmworkers and their families.

Glyphosate, also known as Roundup, is commonly used in U.S. commercial agricultural fields to prevent the growth of broadleaf weeds and grasses. The herbicide is sprayed onto fields of genetically modified crops, sometimes called “Roundup Ready” crops, whose DNA has been altered to be resistant to the chemical. Agri-business giant Monsanto produces Roundup and is also one of the world’s largest producers of bioengineered, glyphosate-resistant seeds. About 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the U.S. are Roundup Ready crops.

Speaking at a March Against Monsanto event, Huerta explained that farmworkers were once told that the herbicide was “medicine” for the plants, but the World Health Organization has classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” to humans.

That classification came as no surprise to Huerta, who noted high cancer rates in farmworkers, in addition to high rates of hypertension, autism, and birth defects in children. The aerial application of glyphosate to farm fields, said Huerta, leads to spray drift, which impacts farmworkers in their homes and also exposes their children, as schools are often located near farm fields.

Since the mid-1990s, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the use of glyphosate on genetically engineered crops has increased 16-fold. But plants can adapt, and many of the weeds that glyphosate once killed have developed their own resistance. As a result, farmers have had to apply even more toxic herbicides to their fields, often mixing glyphosate with these other chemicals.

These health concerns have prompted Huerta to call for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods, also known as GMOs, to “have the consumer reflect and think about how food is grown.” Then, consumers would have a real choice when deciding which types of food to buy and what kinds of agricultural practices to support.

GMO labeling, although done in other parts of the world, is not without opposition here in the U.S. An EWG analysis found that food and biotechnology companies spent $63.6 million last year to oppose mandatory GMO labeling legislation. This figure is three times what they spent in 2013, when Vermont became the first state to enact a mandatory labeling law.

Anti-labeling groups do not want any repeats of the Vermont law, which was upheld just last month in federal court, nor do they want any national legislation. In fact, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) has gone as far as introducing legislation to preempt state laws like the one in Vermont. Pompeo’s bill, H.R. 1599, called DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) by pro-labeling groups, would prevent mandatory GMO labeling and make it more difficult for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement a national labeling standard, despite polls showing that 90 percent of Americans support labeling, and states like Maine and Connecticut, in addition to Vermont, have passed mandatory labeling initiatives.

Huerta questions why business is so opposed to mandatory labeling and willing to spend millions to fight it. She points out that many companies already label fruits and vegetables when they are processed and that GMO labeling should not be considered a political issue but a health issue. Huerta is supporting action by President Obama to direct the FDA to require labeling of genetically engineered food. Last year, some 200 companies sent a letter to President Obama in support of this position, saying that the FDA had a “duty to act,” noting that “the agency has already required labeling of more than 3,000 ingredients, additives and food processes.”

Some lawmakers are also pushing for mandatory GMO labeling. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act this year in both the U.S. Senate and the House.

Consumers deserve to know more. According to Huerta, mandatory labeling “opens the door for people to learn,” and that also includes the farmworkers whose health is being put on the line for the food we buy and eat every day.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Giblin licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Gaylynn Burroughs is policy director at the Feminist Majority Foundation.