A Lookout View: It’s 2022; we need to stop spraying pesticides around our children and schools

Conventionally grown blackberries at Reiter Nugent Ranch next to MacQuiddy Elementary School
The conventionally grown blackberries at Reiter Nugent Ranch are divided from the playground at MacQuiddy Elementary by a small dirt road.

Editorial: Would residents of Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley or Aptos allow pesticides to be sprayed next to their kids’ schools? It’s time for Santa Cruz County to recognize the health dangers of South County pesticide spraying.

Editor’s note: A Lookout View is the opinion of our Community Voices opinion section, written by Community Voices Editor Jody K. Biehl and Lookout Founder Ken Doctor. Our goal is to connect the dots we see in the news and offer a bigger-picture view — all intended to see Santa Cruz County meet the challenges of the day and to shine a light on issues we believe must be on the public agenda. These views are distinct and independent from the work of our newsroom and its reporting.

Perhaps you, too, were shocked.

It’s 2022 and our local agricultural giants are still spraying pesticides — many of which are classified as carcinogenic — next to Watsonville schools. The map Lookout ran told the story almost by itself.

It highlighted the agricultural fields that agricultural companies, including Reiter Affiliated and other companies that grow for Driscoll’s, spray with highly restricted pesticides annually (particularly during the planting months of August through November) and their proximity to 10 Watsonville schools.

The continued spraying is unacceptable.

So is the difficulty of understanding the data.

It’s been 60 years since “Silent Spring” exposed the dangers of DDT and the life-altering damage chemicals can do to the human body. We know better. And we can do better, particularly in our community, where environmental protections have graced us since the 1970s and allowed us to enjoy our waters, mountains and rivers without abundant fear of contamination.

Why then aren’t we protecting our kids?

It’s unconscionable that some parents in our county can offer their kids fresh, organic produce, while others are spending time calculating how to shield their children from getting sprayed with pesticides.

Not their vegetables and fruits. Them. Their small, developing bodies and brains.

It’s an issue our community can and must take on if we care about public health and equity.

Our awareness of the dangers and risks versus the rewards have grown greatly — and yet our schoolchildren are still not safe. The state has implemented complicated layers of regulation that seem to include loopholes and lack of coordination and oversight.

To the many groups who have fought back over the years, only to see the goal posts moved, it is beyond frustrating — and heartbreaking.

The bottom line is, the existing oversight has failed our kids.

Parents and teachers know it. They know what is happening. As Mark Conley’s series of reports show, many increasingly are decrying the status quo and pointing out the dangers their families face.

In that series, we reported movement as growers inched closer to abandoning pesticide use near some schools.

We are encouraged to see likely and imminent movement by some growers, notably the ones that grow fruit for industry giant Driscoll’s, the big driver of much of the county’s berry crop and a major force in local life and philanthropy. That’s to be applauded, as long as it happens — and if it happens as quickly as possible.

We appreciate the at-times delicate dance between agriculture — one of the county’s two biggest industries (along with hospitality) — and residential neighborhoods. It’s the “farmland-meets-the-urban-interface” reality that might grow only more fraught with the need for additional housing supply.

And we understand transitions — converting from conventional to organic is not a snap-the-fingers exercise; market forces have long driven much of that choice. But kids getting sprayed with chemicals — or simply co-inhabiting areas where those residues still exist — is more than a dollars-and-cents question.

It is a public health matter that must be watched and much more diligently tracked.

It’s not just a “South County” problem or one the Pajaro Valley — parents, teachers, school administrators and concerned citizens – should face alone.

It’s not hard to imagine parents in the city of Santa Cruz or Scotts Valley or Aptos up in arms if pesticides were being sprayed next to their kids’ schools.

How do we express our concern, and make this everyone’s issue?

Lookout recommends four actions. We’d like to see:

  1. All candidates in countywide and relevant races speak to the issue, and promise to keep an eye on it, should they be elected.
  2. A more active and public discussion among the county supervisors with the county’s public health department to address the concerns. Assessment of the increasing streams of data analyzing the correlation/causation of childhood and other diseases related to pesticide spraying is needed, and soon. We should not be relying on the vagaries of mights and coulds when our children’s (and their teachers’) health is at stake.
  3. County officials need to to push upward and put pressure on state officials, who control a significant part of the regulatory apparatus, to make sure change is forthcoming. The county’s responses to a civil grand jury report in 2021, abdicating local control to the state and to the county agricultural commissioner, are concerning.
  4. Local leaders need to listen to and learn from the multitude of community and advocacy groups (highlighted in our reporting Thursday) studying the issues. Those groups’ work deserves further investigation as the gaps in the state’s pilot warning systems and the importance of oversight by county agricultural commissioners becomes more apparent.

Remarkably, in our seeming paradise of fresh, organic foods, we were surprised to hear that only 20% of agriculture in the county is now organically grown. The good news: That’s four times California’s overall percentage of 5%.

So much of that local embrace derives from the extraordinary innovation at UC Santa Cruz, almost 60 years ago. We can celebrate our overall journey — but we must not lose sight of where we are failing.

Our community has much work to do to safeguard and protect our South County kids and their teachers, school administrators and families.

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