Pesticides in Agriculture

The Food and Agriculture Organization defines a pesticide as “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying or controlling any pest . . . causing harm during or otherwise interfering with the production, processing, storage, transport or marketing of food.” Pesticides are sprayed onto crops, preventing infestation of produce, and therefore preventing crops losses.

Money is what drives pesticide usage. According to a 2000 study published by the United States Department of Agriculture on pesticide run-off, U.S. farmers approximately make a fourfold return on the money they spend on pesticides (Kellogg, Nehring, Grube, Goss, Plotkin). These dangerous chemicals allow for a higher profit margin in the agricultural business world.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, worldwide agribusiness used an estimated 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides in 2006 and 2007. U.S. usage accounted for 22 percent of the world total, which is approximately 857 million pounds. Eighty percent of this total was used in the agricultural sector.

The Environmental Protection Agency has done extensive research on the negative effects of pesticides. They have found that farm workers’ prolonged exposure to pesticides can cause mild to severe skin and eye irritation, reproductive problems and cancer, especially in the mouth and pharynx. According to a paper by Rebekah Rosas, some minor effects of these chemicals cause include: dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.. The American Medical Association suggests limiting exposure to all kinds of pesticides.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year, 3 million agriculture workers are poisoned with pesticide exposure, and an estimated 18,000 die per year. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that “Surveillance data shows that pesticide-related illness is an important cause of acute morbidity among migrant farm workers in California.” Another 2007 study by the California Department of Public Health found that pregnant women who are exposed to some pesticides are more likely to give birth to children with autism and birth defects.

Pesticides can also negatively affect the overall environment. Kellogg, Nehring, Grube, Goss and Plotkin mention how the overuse or incorrect use of pesticides can pollute the air, pollute the water supply, pollute the soil, stunt plant growth, poison animals, destroy animals’ natural habitat, threaten endangered species and reduce biodiversity.

Viramontes' Under the Feet of Jesus touches on all of these concerns. Alejo, a sixteen year old migrant worker, is sprayed by pesticides, and, consequently, he becomes very ill. Estrella and her family become involved in a debate over how to help Alejo and deal with the severity of his illness. The effect of pesticides on children is a recurring theme in this novel. Women and young girls voice their concerns about their children having birth defects. Early in the novel, Estrella asks her friend Maxine, “You think ‘cause of the water our babies are gonna come out with no mouth or something?” (Viramontes 33). Viramontes, in this work, displays and describes the fears that migrant workers live with every day from chemical poisoning.

References and Further Reading

This video overviews the definition of pesticides, the classification of pesticides, and how pesticides can make their way into our food supply.

Kellogg, Robert, Richard Nehring, Don Goss, and Steve Plotkin. "Environmental Indicators of Pesticide Leaching and Runoff from Farm Fields." United States Department of Agriculture, Feb. 2000. <>.

"Human Health Issues of Pesticides." Pesticides: Health and Safety. Environmental Protection Agency. <>.

"Educational and Informational Strategies to Reduce Pesticide Risks." Preventive Medicine 26.2 (1997): 191-200.

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