The Human Costs of US Agriculture

Photo: Book Cover to
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies by Seth Holmes, assistant professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at UC Berkeley.

Author Seth Holmes, a cultural anthropologist and public health physician, spent eighteen months immersed in the daily struggles of Mexican migrant farm workers. In Skagit Valley, Washington – famous for its strawberries – he lived in a labor camp for five months, working side-by-side minimum-wage berry pickers and interviewing workers and farm owners. Three months followed in Central California, pruning vineyards and living homeless and in a slum apartment. Next, in Oaxaca, Mexico, he lived and worked in the Triqui village once home to the migrants he met in Washington. Later that year, he would accompany ten Mexicans illegally running the Arizona border. Apprehended and released, Holmes later rejoined them after they crossed successfully into California.

His resulting book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, offers a deeply researched account of the social and economic inequalities facing Mexican migrants. Through the lens of his experiences and the voice of the workers themselves, Holmes explores how these inequalities affect health disparities in the United States. He questions the mechanisms that normalize social and health inequalities and, finally, how they play out in the context of Mexico-US migration.

“Each year, the United States employs nearly two million seasonal migrant farm laborers,” Holmes said in a presentation at UC Berkeley’s Center of Latin American Studies. “Over eighty percent of farm employees are immigrants. Ninety-five percent of these workers are born in Mexico and fifty-two percent are undocumented.”

With an occupational fatality rate over five times the national average, noted Holmes, they are among the most vulnerable workers in the nation. “Of agricultural workers, migrant and seasonal farm workers suffer the poorest health. Despite poor health status, only five percent of migrant workers have health insurance.”

“This book is a gripping read not only for cultural and medical anthropologists, immigration and ethnic studies students, students of labor and agriculture, physicians and public health professionals, but also anyone interested in the lives and well-being of the people providing them cheap, fresh fruit,” writes Paul Farmer, Co-founder of Partners In Health and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Read an excerpt of the book published by University of California Press, “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.”

View the interview of Dr. Holmes on NPR.

Watch Dr. Holmes present his findings.

Related COEH Resources

COEH provides a number of resources to improve the safety and health of immigrant communities. These include the UC Davis Migration and Health Research Center, the UC Davis Exposure Sciences Group, the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, and the Labor Occupational Health Program.

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