August 25, 2021
By Federico Castillo, BFI Affiliated Faculty and Río Vargas, Undergraduate Agricultural Labor Research Fellow
Berkeley Food Institute connected the two of us, Federico Castillo, a lecturer at UC Berkeley and researcher in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy Management and the Deputy Director for Planetary Health Centers for Expertise, and Río Vargas, an undergraduate student research fellow, to collaborate in a research project. Dr. Castillo leads the project implementation and participates and leads dissemination of research findings via papers. Other members of the research team include David Lopez-Carr (UCSB and Co-PI), Jennifer Vanos (ASU), and Armando Sanchez Vargas (UNAM and Co-PI). Río was brought on board to collaborate on the estimation of socioeconomic impacts of California’s heat waves and, after March 2020, COVID-19 comorbidities on agricultural workers in the Central Valley. The research team works closely with community organizations in the Central Valley, particularly the LEAP Institute and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.
As two Latinx researchers, we both think research that centers the Latinx community is necessary. We have seen firsthand how limited Latinx representation and visibility are in the field of environmental science. Federico’s response was to create a group at UC Berkeley called “Latinxs and the Environment Initiative ” (LEI). LEI’s goal is to support students and provide them with academic and professional development resources in the field of environmental science The initiative also conducts a seminar that is taught by undergraduate student leaders, with discussions centering environmental issues communities of color face.
This study allowed us to see firsthand the effects of the intersection of identities (Latinx migrants, differing incomes, agricultural laborers, etc) and how these identities have a role in shaping one’s health. Moreover, we explored how COVID-19 and California’s heat waves occurrence had a significant socioeconomic impact on agricultural workers. An important component of the research was to conduct a survey of agricultural workers in the Central Valley of California, more specifically in Huron, Coalinga, and Avenal, all cities located in Fresno County. This survey was administered in Spanish and was carried out by enumerators who surveyed the agricultural workers that live in the geographical regions previously listed. “In this project I translated a Qualtrics survey from English into Spanish. I also added questions pertaining to COVID-19 and how the virus has affected both the agricultural workers’ wellbeing and their socioeconomic status. By working with influential community leaders, such as Rey Leon and Esperanza Vielma, I gained a greater understanding of how research incorporates the voices of local political figures and community advocates. Moreover, I gained several new skills from this experience, such as being able to handle a large data set, giving presentations about processes and findings to UC Berkeley students, and being able to connect virtually during a difficult year of no in-person research. It was important and meaningful for me to be a part of a research project that centers Latinx people and marginalized communities in California, especially during the pandemic. I lead with empathy and sensitivity while writing the COVID-19 additions to the survey, due to my understanding of the Latinx experience and marginalization in relation to American healthcare.”
Why is this research essential?
This research is essential because farmworkers are already exposed to a series of environmental drivers, with negative consequences to their welfare. Among them are climate change related extremes and pesticide exposure. The research currently underway explores the joint impact of these environmental drivers and COVID-19 on farmworkers. Studying only climate change impacts or COVID-19 impacts separately will not provide a full picture of the well-being of farmworkers, an essential component of the food supply chain in California and the country. The social costs related to COVID-19 and climate change extremes on farmworkers are significant and finding ways to reduce those impacts contributes to the mitigation of the negative joint impact of climate change extremes and COVID-19.
What did we learn?
Our project findings are startling: for our sample, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests among farmworkers is 23%, a much higher positive test result relative to the overall US population, but similar to those found for communities of color in other areas of the state. Additionally, 43% of farmworkers in our sample reported reducing the amount of money they send to their home countries as a result of COVID-19 (remittances). The impact of remittance rate reduction is likely to be felt in their countries of origin in the form of less disposable income for food, housing, and other related expenses. This particular piece of data is notable because it shows the international nature of our study. It shows the direct economic and potential health effects of the environmental factors beginning in one geographical region (Central Valley) and expanding to several others (hometowns in Latin America). Data collected shows that farmworkers lost, on average, 24 days of work due to COVID-19 and heatwaves combined. As many farmworkers are already below the federal poverty line, this statistic becomes increasingly relevant, and COVID-19 income impacts add to an already precarious income situation due to low earnings and days of work lost due to heatwaves.
Beyond project findings, our project has benefited immensely from the participation of undergraduate student researchers. In addition to their research described above, Río is contributing as a co-author to potential research findings publications. We are delighted that we are being supported by the Berkeley Food Institute in our research and providing an opportunity for undergraduate students like Río to be involved in food labor research.