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Laboring under false pretense.

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
June 5, 2003


"To understand the source of one's next meal is to understand one's own political vulnerability. — Michael Kramer

People are insane. As a species it seems everyone one of us has a recessive stupidity gene lurking in our subconscious. How else explain educated people being so absolutely clueless, or do-gooders doing good things for all the wrong reasons. This came to me upon reading the news labor unions and farm worker advocates have petitioned California to ban the ancient art of hand weeding.

At first I was ready to take the absurdity at face value. Bureaucrats working to protect the lumbar health of agricultural ground technicians is just the thing to make sure said bureaucrats keep working. This is not to say there are major health concerns facing those responsible for those harvesting the bounty of California's agriculture production. But weeding? Please, the bending and stooping of farm work is just as taxing to the body as it was a millennium ago. Hello? That's why it's called work.

Leading the call to ban hand weeding are advocates with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, United Farm Workers of America and the California Labor Federation. Now I'm sure these people mean well, I really do, but it is obvious these folks have way to much time on there hands. The petition recently presented to the paper pushers at the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CAL-OSHA) asks that the state to require workers to weed standing up, using a tool with a handle at least four feet long.

This is odd considering the California Supreme Court banned the use of the short-handed hoe in 1975. What about long hoe related shoulder strain?

Either lobbyists for the long handed hoe industry are trying to pull off a legislative coup, or there is a bigger issue at play here. Personally I believe it to be the latter case, and the well being of workers is just a convenient tool for multinational corporate agribusiness to undermine the growing organic farming industry in California. This belief is supported by the fact there a few options to hand weeding other than the use of herbicides or the planting of crops that have been rendered herbicide resistant through genetic engineering.

The organic movement is gaining momentum all over the world, most notably Europe and Germany in particular. In a world crazy over chemical weapons people are beginning to question the amount of chemicals being used to produce the food they are feeding to their children. If these farm advocates were to ask agricultural workers what occupational hazard concerned them most, chemical use would trump lower back pain every time.

Another issue that contradicts the altruistic hand wringing on the part of farm worker is that these some farm workers bend and stoop to harvest the crops they are weeding. Like weeds, strawberries are picked by hand, as are most vegetables. If this regulation were to pass it could easily set a precedent that could lead to a ban on the manual harvesting of any crop, in the name of worker safety. Ironically, the people defending workers rights could actually defend those same workers out of a job in the process of "protecting" them.

There is also the history of world agriculture. For centuries people young and old have toiled in the fields. Yes, it can be strenuous, but a job is better than no job, when one has a family to feed. By placing unnecessary burdens on growers you either run them out of business, or force them to relocate to Mexico, or some other place without Big brother trying to tell the small farmer how to run his business.

The big winners in this latest round of rule making are the federally connected agribusinesses claiming in some way to be 'the supermarket to the world'. Truth be told, mega-pharmers such as Monsanto, Archers Daniel Midland, and Dupont, would rather nuke a weed than pay someone to pluck it from the ground. It's a simple matter of economics.

If Californians really want to protect the health of agricultural workers we should concentrate our activism on banning the use of herbicides and pesticides, and providing comprehensive healthcare to those most responsible for the food we eat. It also wouldn't hurt to shift away from the species depleting practice of monoculture. Why not harvest the weeds?

The real answer lies in adapting farming practices to reflect both human and environmental needs. Yet hand weeding is to be banned and genetic engineering and chemical weapons are not.

It's crazy.

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