May 1, 2005

Abundance of poisons, shortage of monitoring

The biggest difference between California and Florida tomatoes isn't taste or price but the amount of pesticides used to grow them.

In California, farmers use an average of 51 pounds of pesticides to produce an acre of tomatoes, according to federal statistics. Florida growers use 196 pounds, almost four times as much. The state's sandy soil, tropical climate and large populations of pests make it necessary for farmers to rely on more chemicals to stay in business, agriculture officials say, and without the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, Florida could not compete in the global marketplace.

The biggest difference between California and Florida regulators is how well they protect farmworkers from chemical poisoning, especially from pesticides.


California has an aggressive monitoring system, with laws that require growers to adhere to strict guidelines and report cases of chemical exposure. In Florida, regulation is lackadaisical and deplorably ineffective. One statistic captures the gap between the states: In 2003, California inspectors documented 614 cases of illnesses or injuries that were linked to pesticide use; Florida inspectors documented only three that year, and none of them was in agriculture. Even allowing for the difference in numbers of farmworkers California has more than twice as many the disparity in cases makes it clear that one state is serious about protecting people and the other is not.

Florida's failure grows from a fundamental flaw that leaves enforcement to the state Department of Agriculture, an obvious conflict of interest. California inspectors work out of a separate Department of Pesticide Regulation and have the autonomy to do their jobs. California also has many more state inspectors about 350 compared with about 45 in Florida and the counties assign hundreds more to work at least part-time in compliance and enforcement. When California inspectors find violations, they are much likelier to draw fines and penalties; Florida inspectors often give growers repeated warnings for the same violations. The state's doctors and health departments also have been indifferent when it comes to following a law requiring them to report pesticide poisonings. Only a few reports are made each year.

Last month, The Palm Beach Post broke the tragic news of severe birth-defect cases involving three children born within the past six months to migrant workers in Immokalee. The Mexican mothers lived close to each other at the same labor camp and worked in the same fields, operated by Ag-Mart Produce Inc. The company says it's too early to tell what caused the deformities and that investigators should be given the chance to find out what happened. But one conclusion already is apparent: The state is failing to ensure safe conditions for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, whose labor is vital to the state's economy. All Floridians bear a share of the shame for that.