The Forgotten Essential Workers

The laborers who harvest our fruits and vegetables are heroes, although they’re rarely treated that way. Now climate change threatens their safety—and our food supply.

Farm laborers in Greenfield, California, harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers between them to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, on April 27, 2020.

Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Until recently, most Americans probably never had the experience of walking into a supermarket and discovering empty or near-empty shelves. With its disruptions to supply chains, food production systems, and consumer behaviors, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to acknowledge that cornucopia-like abundance isn’t something we can take for granted. As the country endures this crisis, we’re indebted to the heroics of grocery store workers, delivery people, truck drivers, distributors, and farmers who are all doing what they can to get food to our tables, safely and quickly.

Often going unheralded in this chain of essential workers, however, are agricultural workers, the people who pull our produce out of the ground or off the trees each year, harvesting and processing the $184 billion worth of fruits, vegetables, and nuts that nourish and sustain us. Officially, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country has roughly 876,000 farm and ranch workers, although the real number is much, much higher than that—probably closer to 2.4 million. Agricultural workers are grossly undercounted and underrepresented, often due to their immigration status or their lack of fluency in English, factors that also contribute to exploitation and suboptimal, or even unsafe, working conditions.

Despite the grueling nature of their work, fewer than half of agricultural workers have health insurance, and a third of them live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. Which makes the results of a recent study exploring the effects of climate change on these laborers especially troubling. According to a trio of academic researchers who recently published their findings in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the nation’s agricultural workers are “amongst the populations most vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme heat” and will only become more vulnerable as climate change makes for hotter days spent beneath the sun. Their findings indicate that these laborers—who are already 20 times more likely to die from heat stress than other civilian workers—are looking at a future where “the average number of days spent working in unsafe conditions will double by mid-century and, without mitigation, triple by the end of it.”

To calculate their projections, the authors determined a threshold heat index of 83.4 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which otherwise healthy workers might begin to suffer the effects of heat stress, such as mental fatigue, extreme thirst, and loss of consciousness. (The heat index is a metric that reflects the human discomfort caused by combined exposure to heat and humidity.) With this as their baseline, they then looked at recorded climate data from 1979 to 2013 and found that the average U.S. crop worker experienced summertime heat index extremes of 94.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Data also indicated that the average present-day agricultural worker is exposed to 21 unsafe working days from extreme heat each summer growing season. Unsurprisingly, extreme heat was found to be most severe in the South, the southern Midwest, California, and the Southwest—which are also the U.S. regions where agriculture dominates.

A customer pushes a shopping cart past empty shelves at an Ohio grocery store in March 2020.
Credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So what might these workers face on a planet that is warmer by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)? In this scenario, the researchers found that the average U.S. crop worker would be subject to heat index extremes of 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit, almost seven degrees higher than what their counterparts endured from 1979 to 2013. And they would experience 39 days of unsafe heat each year—nearly double what they face now. Extreme heat would also begin to creep north, giving previously temperate parts of the country, such as New Jersey and eastern Washington, large numbers of heat-hazardous work days. As for the Southeast, the entire growing season could be considered dangerous for agricultural labor under current work practices.

With a worst-case-scenario rise of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit), the researchers found that agricultural work could become nearly untenable across wide swaths of the country. Under those climate conditions, unsafe temperatures would be expected on 62 of the 153 growing-season days, with the majority of crop workers experiencing, at some point, a heat index extreme of 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Left undescribed by the authors is just how terrifying the world at-large would be if we were to allow average global temperatures to rise by this amount. In addition to worldwide food insecurity caused by the stress on our agricultural systems, we’d also be dealing with a dystopian array of other factors, such as flooded coastal cities and mass die-offs of marine species, that would make life utterly miserable in those parts of the world that were still habitable.

Agricultural workers are already some of the most vulnerable members of the American labor force. Exposure to heat and pesticides endangers their health. They’re paid, on average, $12.42 an hour and receive few, if any, benefits from their employers. They routinely face discrimination and exploitation. Yet without their toil, our entire food system would collapse. So the next time you’re washing vegetables or slicing into a piece of fruit, remember that it came to you only because an agricultural worker made it possible. And the next time you’re wondering how climate change might affect our food supply, remember that it’s not just crops that will wither in the merciless heat. There are people in those fields.

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