A Just Way to Put Food on the Table

From banning toxic nerve agent pesticides to protecting our farmworkers, Earthjustice remains committed to remaking our food system into one that nourishes and sustains life for all of us.

Do you know where your Thanksgiving turkey came from?
Do you know where your Thanksgiving turkey came from? (Jason Doiy / Getty Images)

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For many people in America, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for the blessings of life — and to stuff ourselves silly with plate after plate of comfort food. This Thanksgiving, as the luckiest among us sit down to a bountiful feast, it’s also a time to reflect on how the food we eat gets to our table.

Where did that juicy Butterball come from and how does our nation’s penchant for turkey, other types of poultry, and meat in general, impact the communities that produce it? Who picked that squash, and what were they exposed to in order to get it our local market, ripe and ready to eat? What is it that makes that cranberry sauce so pleasingly colorful and sweet?

In too many cases, there are inadequate protections for farmworkers, many of whom are from marginalized immigrant communities. Rural communities face dangerous pollution from industrial agriculture’s use of toxic pesticides and improper disposal of animal waste. And families across the country are not adequately protected from dangerous substances in the food they pick up at the grocery store.

Earthjustice has been working with agricultural communities around the country on these issues of environmental justice. Together we are fighting for the health and safety of those who produce and consume America’s bountiful food.

The following are highlights from four areas where we’re bringing the power of the law and legal advocacy to contribute to broad-reaching, systemic change.

Banning a toxic pesticide

Chlorpyrifos is a toxic pesticide used on many crops, including such Thanksgiving staples as pecans, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and cranberries. Banned from home uses nearly two decades ago because it is too toxic for children crawling on carpets, chlorpyrifos continues to endanger our food and drinking water as well as farmworkers and rural communities who are exposed either directly or through pesticide drift. Dozens of peer-review scientific studies have linked chlorpyrifos to damage to children’s brains at extremely low-level exposures.

Despite undisputed evidence of harm, the Trump administration reversed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own proposal to ban chlorpyrifos use from all food crops in early 2017, alleging the science is unresolved. Earthjustice countered with a lawsuit, and in August 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in our favor. But the Trump administration has asked the appeals court to rehear the case — trying to delay the court’s order to finalize a ban on the dangerous pesticide.

Earthjustice will fight to defeat this last-gasp legal challenge from the administration in court and ban chlorpyrifos. Meanwhile, we are working with community activists who are pushing for state bans.

“It is long past the time to get chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic pesticides out of our food, our water, and our bodies,” says Earthjustice attorney Patti Goldman.

Maintaining important worker protections

Every year up to 20,000 agricultural workers in the U.S. suffer pesticide poisoning. The Agricultural Worker Protection Standard and Certification of Pesticide Applicators Rule (CPA) were created not only to protect farm workers, but also to safeguard consumers when toxic chemicals are used to maintain residential greenspaces or manage insect infestations.

When the EPA adopted these standards governing pesticide use, it pointed to multiple tragic incidents where children died, or were seriously and permanently injured with nerve damage, when pesticides applicators misused highly toxic pesticides that had been banned for residential use.

Yet the Trump administration’s EPA announced last December that it intends to gut the two regulations. In particular, it plans to reconsider the minimum age requirements established by the CPA rule, which sets training and certification requirements for the most toxic chemicals in the market and protect the roughly half-a-million child farm workers currently working in the U.S.

Days after the EPA’s announcement, Earthjustice and Farmworker Justice submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for communications between EPA and representatives of the agricultural and chemical industries related to the anticipated gutting of these two safety standards. This request went unanswered. In April, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit to compel EPA to turn over the documents.

“Farmworkers and their families have a right to know who EPA met with and what was discussed leading up to this terrible decision,” said Carrie Apfel, staff attorney for Sustainable Food & Farming Program at Earthjustice.

Removing carcinogenic additives from our foods

Seven synthetic flavors — used to add flavors such as mint, cinnamon, and citrus to everything from baked goods and alcoholic beverages to candy and ice cream — have been shown to cause cancer in animals, and may also cause cancer in humans. Labeled simply as “artificial flavors” on ingredient lists, since they were first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1960s, these seven ingredients are used in a wide variety of processed foods.

After Earthjustice asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to force FDA to act on a long-stalled petition seeking to ban these carcinogenic food additives, the FDA agreed in October to revoke approval for the seven ingredients. The food industry has two years to remove them from its products.

“Though it is unfortunate we had to resort to litigation to get FDA to act on the food additive petition, it is gratifying that FDA ultimately made the right decision to protect public health against these carcinogenic flavors,” says Apfel.

Protecting communities from pollution caused by animal waste

Much of the meat we eat in America, probably including your Thanksgiving turkey, is produced in large concentrated animal feeding operations, typically located in rural communities. These industrial animal facilities hold thousands of animals, in confined spaces, and can produce as much waste as a mid-sized city. This waste, often pooled in large, open-air lagoons, creates a pernicious stench that forces local residents to stay indoors.

If left untreated and untended, the lagoons also generate dangerous air and water pollution. A new Duke University study shows that people living in communities with the highest density of hog operations experienced 30 percent more deaths among patients with kidney disease, 50 percent more deaths among patients with anemia, and 130 percent more deaths among patients with sepsis, as compared to people in communities without big hog facilities.

Residents of the communities surrounding industrial animal facilities have been fighting against the stench and pollution for decades. However, the EPA has exempted concentrated animal feeding operations from notifying authorities and communities when they release dangerous quantities of toxic gases. On behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, and several local environmental groups including Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on Sept. 14 to force the agency to disclose public records that could shed light on this decision.

Earthjustice is also working at the state level to protect communities from industrial animal waste. The New York Supreme Court mandated this past spring that the state’s industrial dairies make their waste disposal plans more transparent, ruling in favor of environmental and conservation groups we represented. And last spring North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality settled a civil rights complaint that we helped file by agreeing to require industrial hog operations to better prepare for storms, among other upgrades. When these new standards take effect, they will help avert hog waste floods like those that followed Hurricane Florence.

Emilie has spent the past two decades as a journalist, speechwriter and communications strategist in Washington, D.C. At Earthjustice, she shares the stories of the people and issues at the heart of our clean energy litigation and policy work.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.