Bitter Grapes

My mates over at PANNA, the Pesticide Action Network, North America, have just released this fine report. Their findings on those hurt by pesticides aren’t hugely surprising but, as we’ve seen with other news, it’s amazing what a bit of human colour can do to dry announcements of procedure. And colour there is here in abundance. PANNA have found out that people of colour in California, and Mexican Americans in particular, are hammered by the agricultural chemicals in their communities. No prizes for guessing why Mexican American communities are exposed to higher levels of agricultural pesticides, by the way. PANNA have used the government’s own data to paint a harrowing picture (again, sound familiar?). Children aged 6-12 in the Center for Disease Control study on which the report is based had levels of exposure to a particular neuro-toxic chemical at four times the threshold limit. The question is: will the media interest in this lead to anything but mild slaps on the wrist for the corporations involved?

There’s an interesting connection between this race/toxins story, the White House, and the politics of protest. In the early 1990s, students at Stanford protested precisely this problem. Their point of departure was the exposure of communities of colour to toxins in the growing of grapes in California. The students connected it to wider issues of representation for Mexican Americans in the academy and in Palo Alto, and the sacking of a Vice Provost. The students went on hunger strike in support of their cause. Condoleeza Rice, then Provost, dealt with the protest with characteristic panache and sensitivity. On a Friday afternoon, Dr Rice went to the students with a text authored by the Stanford Administration. At 5.30pm, she glanced at her watch, the story goes, and then offered words to the effect of “Right, I’m off home. See you Monday.” She turned on a heel and walked away. The students co-signed the administration’s agreement by Saturday. Read more about The Grapes of Rice here .

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