Recently pesticide manufacturer Arysta LifeScience agreed to stop selling the cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide in the United States. It was a tremendous victory for the 200,000+ farmworkers, farmers, rural residents and environmentalists that worked over the past several years to pull a chemical that one scientist called “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth” off the market.
One of the central figures of this battle from the get-go, both behind the scenes and in the media spotlight, has been Paul Towers, Organizing & Media Director for Pesticide Action Network (PAN).
For the past decade, Paul has worked to protect communities from hazardous pesticides in their food, air, soil and water. He’s worked side-by-side with people that bear the brunt of industrial agriculture, and helped share their stories, grounded in science, with elected officials and policymakers. It hasn’t been easy. He’s gone up against the likes of pesticide and biotech corporations, oil and gas interests, and industrial food companies.
Highlighting food and environmental injustices has been a priority for Paul from an early age. He grew up in Tucson, Arizona, a state where the five C’s were imprinted on young schoolchildren: copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate. It didn’t take long to see that many of these industries, coupled with explosive growth, were incompatible with the desert.
Over the years, Paul has come to see his work on pesticides, food and agriculture as a means of unraveling the larger issues of building democracy and diminishing corporate control and influence. He’s focused a lot on breaking down the pesticide treadmill–the trap that farmers get caught on as they are forced to use more (and increasingly toxic) chemicals to control insects and weeds that develop resistance to pesticides.
Paul recently moved from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area, but still remains connected to neighborhoods and issues in the political hub of the state. Paul was a key leader of a multi-year effort in Sacramento aptly entitled CLUCK (Campaign to Legalize Urban Chicken Keeping) which eventually legalized keeping egg-laying hens in the city. He continues to be involved in efforts to create more local farmers markets in underserved neighborhoods, spur more urban gardening and strengthen community organizations that collect and deliver social services.
Every one of these efforts required building political pressure to put new policies in place to allow people to grow safe, healthy and local food.
What issues have you been focused on?
First, a word about bees. It’s widely understood that one in every three bites of food we eat is reliant on bees. In working with beekeepers across the country, including some of the largest commercial operations, I’ve learned about the dramatic losses they’re experiencing–over 30 percent of their hives each year. These losses are often termed colony collapse disorder. This is bad for all of us, especially if you like to eat things that require pollination like almonds, cherries, and blueberries–and dozens of other crops.
Increasingly, science points to this newer class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids as a critical factor in CCD. We filed a legal petition with over two-dozen beekeepers last month urging EPA to take action on these neonicotinoids. As you can imagine, pesticide corporations like Bayer are pushing back, trying to confuse the science.
Strawberries have been a big focus too. With strawberry season now upon us in California, many of us are getting excited to eat our share of the fruit. While the controversial fumigant pesticide methyl iodide is off the shelf, other strawberry pesticides are still widely used in California and across the country. Many rural residents and farmworkers are on the front lines of exposure, with these gaseous pesticides drifting into their homes and bodies. Many fumigants are known to be cancer-causing, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins. So we’re working with people across the country to bring their case to local, state and federal officials to phase out the use of these chemicals and invest in green, safe and cutting-edge agriculture.
What inspires you to do this work?
A lot of things inspire me to strive for an ecologically sound and socially just food system.
But more than anything it’s the injustices I see and the people who are taking incredibly courage steps to counter them. It’s the people I meet from all over the country–from Alaska to Florida, Illinois to California–who are working to ensure that their communities are safe and healthy. Last week, I had a chance to meet with a diverse group of Hawaiians who are actively working to take their food system back from pesticide and biotech corporations and the plantation system.
I’m also an expecting father. It is likely that our child is already being exposed to pesticides and other chemicals in utero. And that makes me angry. So I work to create protections and find solutions to ensure our child isn’t saddled with a toxic legacy of pollution.
As I look toward the upcoming adventure of fatherhood, the health and future of my child–very literally–is a big part of what inspires me to keep doing this work.
What’s your overall vision?
In the not so distant future, my vision is that we re-build our food and farming system to create a sustainable form of agriculture and lift up human rights to food, justice and self-determination.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
I don’t spend nearly enough time reading books, including those on my nightstand. I do consume a lot of news, including newspapers and magazines from all over the country. I’m especially impressed by blogs by folks like Tom Philpott at Mother Jones, Twilight Greenaway and Tom Laskawy at Grist, Barry Estabrook, and so many others.
Who’s in your community?
Our community is large–we’ve got “network” in our name. It’s international and it’s farmers, beekeepers, farmworkers, rural residents, and everyone in between. PAN has five regional centers based in the major continents, representing tens of thousands of people and organizations. I am honored to be part of this global community of concerned and committed citizen activists.
On a day-to-day basis, I work closely with lots of people involved in coalitions like Californians for Pesticide Reform, the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and Californians for a Healthy and Green Economy.
What are your commitments?
I’m committed to science, justice, and people, across the globe.
What are your goals?
Personally, I want my artichoke plants to thrive this year. Professionally, I want to be part of fixing our food and farming system to protect farmers, workers, communities–and children, include my own. Both are challenging, but of different magnitudes.
What does change look like to you?
It’s what Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers did and do, what Lois Gibbs and the Center for Health and Environmental Justice did and do and its what Luke Cole at the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment did and do.
Change means organized, coordinated people pressuring elected officials and decision makers–including corporate leaders–to take steps to protect health and the environment, while advancing safe solutions. The good news is that people want their communities and environment to be healthy–we just need to reach decisionmakers with our collective voice.
Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?
The success of our international network over the past 30 years has taught us a few things, especially as we’ve helped broker new protections through international treaties. Change requires organizing. Organizing people and partners requires patience, time and commitment. It requires online and offline engagement, meeting people where they are and creating collaborative opportunities to advance a shared vision.
What projects are affiliated with yours?
I already described my work around safe strawberries and healthy pollinators. I also work with PAN to hold the “Big 6” pesticide and biotech corporations–Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Dow, Dupont, and Syngenta–accountable for human rights abuses. We concluded an international trial late last year in India, documenting harms to live, health and livelihood. And the final verdict should be issued soon, so this work will continue to unfold. In addition, we’re continuing to document the harm to Midwest communities from water contaminated by the Syngenta’s gender-bending atrazine, an herbicide commonly used in corn fields.
What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?
I’m impressed by so many people and organizations. I respect organizations that shine a spotlight on the broken industrial agricultural system, finding policy solutions, and those that are helping us get out of it. Off the top of my head, I respect organizations like the Center for Food Safety, United Farm Workers and Food & Water Watch are doing a great job of advocating for change. I also deeply respect organizations like ALBA and the California Farm Academy, who are training the next generation of farmers with cutting-edge, green agriculture.
Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a real possibility?
Farmers, rural residents, and consumers are demanding something different–whether it’s labeling of genetically engineered crops and products, phasing out the use of hazardous pesticides or investing in sustainable agriculture. We are in a moment of real possibility for a real shift in direction on our agriculture and food policies.
What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?
Political and organized. The challenges before us are large and profound, including the power of pesticide and biotech corporations. These corporations exert undue influence in the elections, lobbying, and through the revolving door with government regulators. So we, as a movement must gather our voices and be determined, creative and persistent. We can’t afford to be anything but political and organized.
What would you want to be your last meal on earth?
Anything my wife cooks. She’s got a real knack for pulling things together, including fresh ingredients from our yard and weekly finds at farmers markets. And she’d probably wrap it up in a fresh tortilla, a nod to those I use to get fresh off the line at the spot across the street after school growing up.