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?
Bees and strawberries have been the main focus in recent months.
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?