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Producing Environmental Injustice: Legitimation Struggles Facing Pesticide Intensive Agriculture in Ventura County


The intensive use of hazardous pesticides in California agriculture disproportionately harms farmworkers and their families, the majority of whom are low-income, Latina/o immigrants. While many stakeholders, such as advocates and farmworkers, oppose existing pesticide use practices due to disparate pesticide-related health impacts, other stakeholders, such as agriculture representatives and government bureaucrats, defend existing practices. Addressing pesticide-related health disparities has involved intensive conflict and debate due to the diverse interests, competing demands, and uncertainties involved. Stakeholders in Ventura County have debated the legitimacy of local pesticide use practices for decades. I explore how stakeholders cope with pesticide-related health disparities and unpack the underlying dynamics that make it difficult to challenge power asymmetries in public debate and problem-solving efforts.

Through a qualitative, ethnographic case study of Ventura County, California, this study answers the following questions: 1) How do local stakeholders’ positionalities, claims, and rhetorical strategies around the legitimacy of existing pesticide use practices impact public debate and problem-solving efforts? 2) How do the interests and concerns of farmworkers and their representatives become obscured and disregarded in public debate? To answer these questions, I employed an interpretative, grounded theory approach to data collection and data analysis. I conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 91 agricultural health stakeholders, as well as over 200 hours of participant and non-participant observations. I also collected numerous archival materials. I analyzed the positionalities and discursive practices of four different stakeholder groups – advocates, farmworkers, agriculture representatives, and government bureaucrats.

I found that while all these stakeholders support reducing hazardous pesticide use to some extent, they also share a dominant discourse that depicts pesticide use as necessary for achieving high agricultural yield. This taken-for-granted assumption limits stakeholders’ capacity to envision pesticide use alternatives in agriculture. Furthermore, I found that the rhetorical strategies of dominant groups, including agriculture representatives and government bureaucrats, are effective at legitimizing established pesticide practices and reinforcing inequality by obscuring farmworkers’ experiences and realities, disregarding social and racial injustices, and concealing dominant ideologies. An advocate-grower partnership named the Miracle Group overcame some of these challenges by coproducing proposals related to farmworker health. They were able to acknowledge farmworker concerns, particularly in relation to the need for a hotline and expanded pregnancy leave options, by negotiating the use of different frames, claims, and rhetorical strategies in relation to specific projects. However, they did not resolve all the asymmetries and invisibilities that argumentation dynamics of pesticide use debates reinforce. For example, while the group members recognized concerns related to social inequality, they omitted language that would acknowledge inequality from their proposals in order to conserve the possibility of reaching agreement.

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