Pass the Pesticides


The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma

Sometimes it’s a seemingly random sentence in a book that makes the deepest impression. It’s often a line that could easily have been tossed by a sloppy editor, or even self-edited as superfluous window dressing. But really, for the attentive reader, it’s a line that—in all its evocative detail—is unexpectedly critical to the story and quietly emblematic of the whole. For me, in Angus Wright’s The Death of Ramón González, that rare sort of line hit suddenly, forcefully and with clarity.

It read: “Magdaleno picked loose threads from a seam in his jeans as he continued to talk.”

The observation is poignant. On the surface, it suggests nervousness, as if Magdaleno was perhaps uncomfortable talking to an Anglo about the abuse he had endured as an agricultural laborer. On another level, though, there’s the important reminder that Wright’s vivid condemnation of agricultural modernization is based not on an ivory tower analysis of impersonal data but on looking the oppressed in the eye, hearing their stories, speaking their language, and observing them closely enough to notice them fidgeting with loose threads on worn clothing. This choice detail, in other words, captures the book’s spirit, intentions, and methodology.

Symbolically, there’s also the insinuation that the Culiacán Valley of Northwest Mexico, where Magdaleno worked, was itself coming apart at the seams as capitalists commercialized what had once been a peasant-oriented agricultural system. Magdaleno’s tic also suggests that the economic transition that placed him in the midst of pesticide-choked fields unraveled not just his pants but his personal sense of human decency. And there’s even the distant hint that Magdaleno might have been unwillingly complicit in his own demise—a victim who’s been forced in the position of pulling apart his own security.

Here’s what Magdaleno goes on to say about working in the Culiacán fields:

A lot of people died that season, especially the children. They said it was the cold or the flu. It was very difficult for the mothers to take care of them. The women had to awaken at one in the morning to prepare the lunch that would be all the men had to eat in the field. The outhouses were locked up at night. There were no beds, just whatever blankets or clothes we had to put on the ground. The company store charged very high prices, and we were given scrip for some of our wages that was only good in the company store.

The fact that Magdaleno said this while picking “loose threads from a seam in his jeans” makes Wright’s book much more than a timely analysis of an environmental problem. It makes it a riveting narrative of human suffering, corporate greed, and, as such, a clarion call for political reform.

Wright’s book, originally published in 1990 and recently re-released with a new “Afterword,” pivots on the fate of Ramón González—the fictionalized name of a tomato picker in the Culiacán Valley who very likely died as a result of direct pesticide poisoning. González worked very closely with toxic chemicals that were illegal in the United States. He lacked protective equipment or training in dangerous pesticide use. Frequently he bathed in water contaminated with pesticide runoff. Why were González and his exploited co-workers thus exposed? Why were his and his family’s suffering tolerated?

Wright answers this question by effectively placing González’ working conditions in the context of late twentieth-century geopolitical change. Beginning in the 1940s (with an emphasis on the Green Revolution) and culminating in the early stirrings of globalization in the 1980s, industrialized nations led by the United States sought cheaper ways to produce food. This quest to boost agricultural productivity in the name of national health and wealth, Wright notes, had measurable outcomes. It undoubtedly increased the GDPs of poor nations, and it certainly enriched the corporations that capitalized agricultural industrialization. But—largely as a result of intense pesticide use—increased agricultural output also destroyed (and continues to destroy) local environments, men such as Magdaleno and González, their wives and children, and a way of life that was once more stable, equitable, and proudly provincial. Technological progress, as it always has, came at a human cost.

Back to the question: Why were González and his exploited co-workers thus exposed? The answer, as Wright convincingly portrays it, is both obvious and discomforting: so that we here in the United States (and yes, we here in Texas) could get more vegetables, cheaper vegetables, vegetables on a year-round basis, and vegetables grown through methods that are illegal on this side of the border. Oh yeah, and so a few people could get really, really, really rich.

It’s simple enough in this day and age to expose greed. But Wright’s brilliance is his ability to complicate an idea as basic as wealth. The concept of “wealth,” he contends, varies across time, place and culture. González’ family, for example, who came from Oaxaca, were agricultural workers, too. But they knew a radically different world of work, and they entertained broader and more humanitarian conceptions of wealth. Resisting the temptation to romanticize subsistence agriculture and peasant culture, Wright describes in some detail the traditional Mixtec system of agricultural production in Oaxaca. It’s a system that stressed stability and community, as well as very different ideas about “the improvement of human life than those held by the elites.”

Under Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), peasants enjoyed the state-protected opportunity to “sink their roots deeper into the countryside.” Tied to their land, they nurtured “relatively autonomous rural communities” within a “closed natural system,” and they enjoyed the dignity that came from feeding themselves. Wright’s explanation for the transition from traditionalism to modernization—a transition cynically justified with the rhetoric of the Green Revolution and its promise to feed the world—exposes the hidden pitfalls of not just pesticide-intensive agriculture, but of the entire project of globalization as a development driven largely by unregulated private corporations. (One positive aspect of the Green Revolution, Wright notes, is that “crop development was done by public institutions” that could not patent their seeds.) All in all, Wright shows, a rather blunt conception of “wealth” has been foisted upon the quieter corners of the earth.

His book is hard to ignore if for no other reason than anyone who eats is involved in the development he documents. The next time you grocery shop, notice the melons from Mexico, asparagus from Peru, and snow peas from Guatemala. Then notice their price compared to the local organic options. Cheap. And they’re cheap because corporations that claim they’re feeding the world are in actuality growing crops in places that offer inexpensive land, abundant labor, and no regulations against “lavish quantities of hazardous pesticides to deal with the difficult pest problems of the tropics and semi-tropics.” In short, they’re indulging in a Monsanto-inspired wet dream.

To wit, in Wright’s afterword to the 2005 edition, he notes a depressing milestone. In 2004, for the first time “in recent history,” the United States imported more food than it exported. This despite the fact that “[t]he United States is generally thought to have the best natural agricultural endowment of soils and climate of any nation on earth.” Why, then, the trade imbalance? Absentee agribusiness conglomerates, Wright concludes, have recognized the financial benefits of developing “Culiacán Valley-style agriculture throughout the world.” In other words, the inequities he highlights through the personal stories of González and Magdaleno have only intensified since he published his book in 1990. All in the name of one very narrow version of “wealth.”

Wright knows better than most academics (he’s an emeritus professor of environmental studies at Cal State-Sacramento) that books don’t change the world. His answer to the problem of irresponsible agricultural modernization is thus old fashioned, class-driven, get-your-ass-out-there-and-protest-the-WTO political change.

“[I]gnorance and unregulated promotion of dangerous technologies,” he insists, “are intimately tied to the political relationships and the ideological assumptions that determine how a nation is ruled.” These relationships, he writes, must be contested. As a great singer-songwriter once observed, “You’ve got to bust up a sidewalk sometimes to get people to gather around.” And so Wright is swinging his sledgehammer, arguing for conventional political opposition as the solution to the problems he describes.

That focus on conventional political opposition may be the only dated aspect of this fertile book. What may have also changed between now and 1990 is America’s attitude toward food. Although by no means mainstream, a kind of cultural awareness about food and food production—due in part to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the investigative literature it spawned—has become increasingly popular among young American

consumers. A broader focus on sustainability, organic produce, and fair labor practices has encouraged otherwise politically lukewarm Americans to make political decisions in the grocery stores they frequent and the food they bring home to cook. Wright may be right—the answer to agribusiness and the abuse it perpetuates may have to be strictly political. But, now that food is finally about more than food in the United States, it’s never been easier for the average citizen to bust up a sidewalk.

Contributing writer James E. McWilliams is the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press).